After being repeatedly lectured by Netanyahu in Washington, Obama finally visits the Holy Land

Sol W. Sanders  

JERUSALEM — One of the most quoted of Maynard Milord many clever aphorisms is: “You can’t push on a string”.

Keynes was referring to extending credit to an unreceptive investment market. [Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke are you listening?]

The quip comes to mind this morning on the eve of President Barack Hussein Obama’s visit to Jerusalem. Israeli media are full of anonymous quotes from American and Israeli sources about how the meetings are “to push” the so-called “peace process”.

The reality is that there is no peace process to push.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with President Barack Obama in March 2012.  /AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with President Barack Obama in March 2012. /AP

Negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians [and other Arabs] have been deadlocked for months. The media also report that neither side, neither the Americans nor the Israelis, have any new initiatives to propose.

And Mahmoud Abbas, president of the purported Palestinian state on the West Bank, is coming back from a Pakistan visit where he is unlikely to have got many ideas about how to negotiate your way out of a political crisis. His counterparts in Hamas who control Gaza, the other Arab region carved from the Old British Mandated Palestine, are flitting back and forth between their Egyptian and Iranian sponsors, but dedicated to a Muslim state which continues to deny Israel’s existence. Their negotiations with Abbas appear to have resulted in no progress toward a reintegration of the two Palestines, and, indeed, there may be a growing Hamas/radical presence in Abbas’ bailiwick.

In fact, the situation may be even direr – if you belong to that vast if largely uninformed majority who believe the Middle East is on the verge of “a two-state solution” which would solve the 100-year-old dispute between Zionist Jews and Arabs in The Holy Land.

President Obama and his coterie of long-time Palestinian and Arabist friends and advisers may have dealt the death blow to such a solution when he opened his presidency with an insistence on making Israeli/Jewish settlements in the so-called Occupied Territories gained by Israeli the 1967 war his highest priority. They had been only one of many equally difficult issues before that but never made the sine qua non of progress toward a long-term settlement.

But by threatening to end an expansion of Jews living in the historic mountainous sites of the ancient Hebrew Kingdoms [the old Roman and Ottoman provinces of Judea and Samaria, the West Bank of the Jordan], Obama upended the assumption that two democratic states might tolerate significant minorities – at least – of the other. After all, Israeli Arabs constitute 20 percent of its estimated 7-plus million people. [No one would dare propose an exchange of populations such as took place in the 1920s between Turkey and Greece.]

So what is the President doing here?

I found most Israelis as puzzled as I – but ripe with political speculation which is a major sport rivaling the high tension Jerusalem-Haifa football [soccer] match last night.

During his first presidency Obama scrupulously avoided coming, apparently to punctuate his own new approach to Mideast policies outlined in what the administration regarded as seminal speeches in Egypt and Turkey. Those took the line that American had made mistakes, and, presumably an overly sympathetic position to Israel was part of it.

The media report he won’t do tourism – refusing a visit to Masada, the stark plateau where Jewish rebels held out against one of the Romans’ most massive sieges, ending in mass suicide. It has come to be a touchstone – like the museum memorializing the European Holocaust – to Israeli determination to “never again” become a conquered and victimized people.

Obama is also visiting Jordan next door, where the monarchy throughout its history has been dependent on American, Saudi – and Israeli – support.

Abdullah II [ironically namesake of his grandfather, the only major Arab figure ever willing to consider living in a carefully arranged peace with a Jewish state] has his own “Palestinian” problem. More than half his population is descended from Arabs from the West Bank of the Jordan [after his own originally “Transjordan” was whacked off the original League of Nations British Mandate by London without a by-your-leave from Geneva]. His rule, historically based on an army recruited from the Bedouin desert population is Bedouin, now faces a growing phalanx of middle class professional and commercial “Palestinians”, infected by both the promise and the violence of the Arab Spring in surrounding countries, demanding more government participation.

It takes something of a suspicious mind – and this writer has never been accused of that – to speculate that the President and his Mideast advisers have taken this opportunity to put the arm on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, notorious for his lecturing the President on his version of the situation here, is vulnerable. Contrary to pre-election polls, he did not get a record-breaking majority in recent elections. He is in the midst of one of those arcane and excruciating coalition-making operations after an Israeli election. With its notorious proportional representation, the proliferation of ideological and special interest parties is a jungle. Putting together the jigsaw ruling majority in Israel’s notorious rambunctious Knesset [parliament] tests even the skill of an old Israeli warhorse like Netanyahu – and semi-official American kibitzing has been known in the past. It will certainly be a temptation for Air Force One’s occupants. There have even been some Israelis who share perennial American optimism or are willing to play the game for their own chance at the driver’s seat.

That makes Netanyahu vulnerable to Washington pressure, not only on the issue of the Palestinians, but Jerusalem’s repeated threat by implication to go it alone to take out the Iranian nuclear weapons potential. With more and more taunting statements from Iranian leaders – now, that they have the right to have a bomb but would not for humanitarian reasons! – and seeming rapidly increasing mass destruction weapons progress in Iran, that issue is front and center. It is no secret that the Obama Administration is flirting with “containment” – that is, accepting promises from Tehran that while it could make a bomb, it would not do so as was the case with India for several decades.

For Israelis, who live constantly with memories of other seemingly insane enemies whose threats were discounted, the threats of annihilation from Tehran have more verisimilitude.

It is due to these continued concerns that there seems little doubt that the Israeli body politic has moved “right”, if still bitterly divided by issues of secularism, special privileges for young religious, and an economy hurt by the worldwide slowdown. In a world where hopes for democratic movements in the Arab Spring are rapidly turning into a nightmare of growing Muslim fanaticism – even in a former highly secularized state like Tunisia – most Israelis appear to believe only their garrison state can protect them with potential enemies on all sides.

Mr. Obama, and his advisers, particularly new CIA director-nominee, John Brennan [Brennan of Arabia as he is known in some circles], will undoubtedly see things in a different way. Those Israeli sound-proof rooms are going to take a beating!

Sol W. Sanders, (, is a contributing editor for and and blogs at