20 March 2013

Obama in Israel

As you probably know, President Obama is on his first state visit to Israel. From what I can see, the consensus in the corporate media seems to be that this is a routine exercise and it is designed to smoothen their bilateral relations.

I do not share their opinion. From my perspective, I see this as the last face-to-face meeting between Netanyahu and Obama before significant developments take place in the region. And it is designed to ensure that they share the same playbook.


As a prelude to Obama's visit, Iran and the possibility of a military strike has been brought back to the agenda.  Obama knows that once he is in Israel standing next to Netanyahu, he will be asked all kinds of theoretical questions that could be used to justify a military response to Iran's nuclear program. And he will have to use stronger language to reassure both the Israelis and his constituency back home.

However, Obama knows that a strike is the last thing that will contribute to Israel's long term security. Last May, I enumerated the reasons why the military option is completely counterproductive. They are still valid. More so with the imminent implosion of Syria.

So, a couple of days before his trip to Israel, Obama seized the occasion of Newrouz (the Iranian New Year) to declare that Iran should do more to convince the international community that it does not intend to pursue a nuclear weapons program. He sounded reasonably conciliatory in that he mentioned the possibility of a sanction-free future if Iran played ball. Since he knows that the sanctions are biting and the Iranian regime is forced to come up with new and innovative approaches to buy basic necessities, he wants to keep the focus on economic relief and good citizenship in international community.

Whereas Netanyahu wants to convey the idea that Israel might strike anytime and the mullahs should feel insecure and weary.

The problem with his approach is that it is not very credible, as everyone is aware that the military option is extremely unlikely to provide the kind of relief Israeli government is seeking. Unlike Osirak or the Syrian reactor, Iran has multiple sites and most of them are either underground or in well protected bunkers. Besides, contrary to the official discourse on the success of the Osirak strike, Operation Opera did not convince Saddam to give up his nuclear program: It encouraged him to redouble his efforts. It was the first Gulf War that put an end to his nuclear ambitions. A military operation against Iran (besides being very risky and almost certainly inconclusive) could also lead to a renewed resolve to build a nuclear weapon.

The danger is that by continually talking about it, Netanyahu is creating a tense situation that might encourage Iranian leadership to take stupid risks.

Think about it from their perspective. They had an ally in Syria and is now all but certain that he and his regime will be gone in a few months. They managed to get a Shiite to head the government of Iraq. But Iraq is a weak and de facto partitioned country. Kurds are controlling the North and Shiites are in charge of the southern Basra region and the Sunnis are in the middle. The central government is so powerless that it cannot even stop Kurds from making deals with foreign powers.

In both cases, the regional power that is most responsible with this state of affairs is Turkey. Turkey provides protection to Northern Iraqi Kurds and has been doing its best to destabilize the Assad regime in Syria. Iran feels increasingly isolated as they see the Turkey as a regional super power promoting a seemingly unstoppable Sunni ascendancy.

There is also the renewed problem of Kurds. If Turkey succeeds in placating the PKK and co-opt them through a larger a peace process, the PKK's satellite organizations in Syria (PYD) and Iran (PJAK) will resume their operations against their host governments (currently, alegedly on the say-so of the PKK leadership, the PJAK retreated to Northern Iraq and ceased its insurgent operations in Iran). Iran would have a much more serious Kurdish problem if Kurds manage to stitch together a semi-autonomous political entity that encompasses Iraq, Syria and Turkey. That would make the Iranian section of Kurdistan a very important prize. And they would have the means (financial and military) to go after it.

Moreover, as I mentioned over a year ago, there is an oil rich region in Iran, largely populated by ethnic Arabs, called Khuzestan. The US has been trying very hard to change the mood in the region against Tehran. The local Arabs stayed loyal to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war but after decades of clandestine work undertaken by the CIA, they might have developed a different perspective. I am sure that Iranian government is extremely worried about losing that region.

And all of this is happening when they are simply cut off from the international trade system. Talk about feeling under threat.

My sense is that, in that volatile setting, Obama is walking a very tight rope. Publicly, he needs to reassure Israelis that the US will not let anything bad happen to them while privately dissuading their leaders from contributing to the sense of doom that must be paramount in Tehran.

In that context, he also needs to ensure that Iranian government do not go crazy by believing that they lost the strategic power game and the demise of their Islamic Republic is imminent.

It will be fun to watch the body language of Obama and Netanyahu during their first press conference.


Before the last Israeli elections, I was one of the few people to claim that they might result into a more pro-peace cabinet. Despite Bennett's presence in it, the new Netanyahu government seems a lot more inclined to negotiate a two-state peace accord. Tellingly, that portfolio was given to Tzipi Livni, the only senior Israeli politician who has credibility in that regard. The fact that his cabinet does not include ultra-orthodox parties is also a big plus (and it foretells a serious showdown between Haredim and secular Israelis in the coming years).

My guess is that Obama will try to discourage Netanyahu from negotiating to fail by reminding him a few facts.

He will point out that to keep a single state as a Jewish state is demographically impossible and that situation would only create many unpalatable solutions.

He will tell him that Egypt is and will remain a very unstable country and a reasonable peace with Palestinians will go a long way towards reducing the level of radicalization in Egypt and in neighboring countries. And such de-radicalization is more important than trying to maintain the military upper hand.

He will urge him to work with Turkey as this latter is likely to be the dominant force in the coming years. (I always maintained that, Erdogan's personal feelings about Israel notwithstanding, the public animosity between the two sides was a kabuki theater designed to give Turkey some serious credibility in the region after decades of being perceived as a puppet of the West)

He will point to Hamas' new leadership and their distance to Iran and urge him to seize that opportunity.

Finally, he will gently break it to him -and that is a point that is hardly emphasized- that Israel will have serious economic (and consequently social) problems if it maintains this militaristic approach and devote an enormous portion of its resources to its military and security apparatus.

In that sense, Obama and Netanyahu might not announce a peace initiative but I believe that one of the goals of this visit is to finalize the parameters of a platform that will become the Palestinian peace initiative later this year.


President Obama knows first hand that Syria is about to go kaboom.

If this was allowed to happen without a solid plan and the ability to make critical interventions, when needed, Israel might find itself in a serious danger. An imploding Syria would almost certainly engulf Lebanon and possibly even Jordan. And Israel would be unable to stop this spread by itself.

This means that the Syrian endgame would require a close cooperation between the US, Israel and Turkey. In that trio, Israel is the one that needs the other two badly. My guess is that, currently plans are being drawn up to secure chemical and biological weapons if no one appears to be in control.

There are also general discussions of several scenarios for post-Assad Syria. Syria is a large country but like Iraq, many regions are hardly inhabited. When you look at the map, you can see the population clusters.

Clearly, the Kurds will inherit the North east of the country as it is part of the historic Kurdistan. Secondly, after such a bloody and protracted civil war, (not to mention the previous decades of Alewite supremacy) it will be next to impossible for Alewites and Sunnis to live together. If you look at the map, Alewites are mostly on the West by the Mediterranean coast (Latakia and Tartus region). There is an internal Alewite exodus towards Tartus and the New York Times reported that, according to some, if the regime in Damascus fails "Mr. Assad and the security elite will try to survive the collapse by establishing a rump Alawite state along the coast, with Tartus as their new capital."

The map also shows how Lebanon is really linked to Syria and how close the two are to Israel. And of course, the disputed Golan Heights.

I think more than anything else, this map will convince Netanyahu that the Obama playbook for the region is in Israel's best interest.

In short, I expect that this state visit will not produce much on the surface (besides a few awkward Netanyahu bluster moments, that is).

But I remain convinced that, behind the scenes this visit is designed to iron out the last bit of differences between the two sides and to put the finishing touches on a grand play that will transform the region in the next few years.


This was on BBC News:
Arriving in Tel Aviv, Mr Obama told PM Benjamin Netanyahu the US was proud to be Israel's "strongest ally", and that "peace must come to the Holy Land".

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