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Inside Story

Resetting the tone of US-Israeli relations?

As President Obama visits Israel, we ask if he has anything to offer in terms of the stalled Middle East peace process.
Last Modified: 21 Mar 2013 14:25

Barack Obama, the US president, arrived in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. It is his first foreign trip since he began his second term in office and his first to Israel as the US president.

"It's very important from Obama's point of view to appear to reassure the Netanyahu government ... as well as the Israeli people more generally and so what we are seeing is very much to the opposite of the approach from the Obama administration four years ago where he sort of articulated a position that he thought had to happen on the negotiations .... What's really going to be interesting ... to see what happens after the visit ... because the visit will be carefully orchestrated to do the maximum possible to put Israelis ... in a place feeling really strong about the level of this president's commitment to Israel but then we will see what are the other issues that come in to play next."

- David Mednicoff, the director of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst

But Obama's three-day tour of the Middle East is being seen as largely symbolic. After four years of strained relations between him and his Israeli counterpart expectations are exceedingly low.

Syria and Iran will be top of the agenda but despite no new plan to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, Obama had supportive words for Israel.

"Peace must come to the holy land. For even as we are clear-eyed about the difficutlties we will never lose sight of an Israel at peace with its neighbours. So as I begin this visit let me say the US stands with the Israel because it's in our national security interest, it makes us both stronger, more prosperous and it makes the world a better place," said Obama.

Popular uprisings have changed the political landscape in the Middle East in the last two years. The Egypt from which Obama addressed the Arab and Muslim world in 2009 is no longer ruled by Hosni Mubarak. And gone are the authoritarian governments and leaders in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. Also there was no civil war in Syria.

With expectations at an all-time low, it comes as little surprise that Obama appears to have side stepped the peace process.

A look at the issue of settlements shows it has been almost 15 years since the last peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

In that time, the number of settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has almost doubled, to more than 500,000.

"What the United States can offer the Palestinians really is ... helping to broker between the Palestinians and Israel. This is a relationship of tremendous asymmetry of power and the parties have proven, I think, over the decades that left to their own devices they really will not come to an agreement. So it's a little counter-intuitive but in a way Palestinians need to have the American president not totally disliked by the Israeli public."

- Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine

Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders say they will not open negotiations without a settlement freeze. But the PA is seen as weak and illegitimate by many Palestinians.

And Israel's new right-wing government, much like its last, is expected to be just as settlement friendly.

The White House announced ahead of the visit it will not propose a new peace initiative. The trip is also a chance for President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu to reset their tense relationship.

And as the security situation continues to deteriote in neighbouring Syria, Israel will raise concerns the violence could threaten its borders. But top of the agenda will most likely be Iran.

Israel wants to lower the bar for an attack on Iran, should it get any closer to building a nuclear bomb. And Obama will be trying to temper these expectations and refuse to commit to any military action.

So what do the Palestinians, Israelis and the US expect to gain from this presidential visit?

Inside Story, with presenter Jane Dutton, discusses President Obama's visit to Israel with guests: Gerald Steinberg, the president of the NGO Monitor, and a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University; David Mednicoff, the director of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; and Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine - a non-governmental organisation advocating a two-state solution.

"He [Obama] said almost exactly all the right words and also his body language was one which was friendly. It showed greater understanding than he's shown in the last four years of how Israelis see their situation, it makes a big difference.

"So he talked about the long history of the Jewish people in this land, something that Israelis felt was missing particularly from his Cairo speech of four years ago but also from the way he dealt with Israelis for a long time. He talked about the Israeli accomplishments, he talked about the ... long-standing friendship between the United States and Israel, talked about 65 years of Israeli independence as a beacon of freedom and democracy in the Middle East and the basis for the close relationship, the alliance between Israel and the United States.

"Those were all important words and it was a very good beginning in terms of really repairing or restarting the relationship that had been so damaged over the last four years, between not just Israel and the United States but particularly between the president and the Israeli public and its elected representatives. "

Gerald Steinberg, the president of the NGO Monitor



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