Obama in Israel: Symbolism, Syria and Iran

The president will make nice with Bibi, discuss Iran and Syria and make no progress on Israel-Palestine peace

Published March 20, 2013 1:36PM (EDT)

In the lead up to Air Force One landing in Tel Aviv, commentators had already called President Obama's trip to Israel -- which began Wednesday -- "laden more with symbolism than substance."

His arrival in Tel Aviv has fulfilled on that front: Obama hugged Bibi and cracked a joke about getting away from Congress. Then, even before heading off from Tel Aviv airport, Obama visited a missile battery that is part of Israel's U.S.-back Iron Dome missile defense system -- it was a well choreographed nod to U.S. commitment to Israeli security.

Obama's trip -- the first to Israel as president -- is understood to be an effort to reassure Israel of U.S. support, especially when it comes to Iran. Syria's civil war will also top discussion agendas between Obama and Netanyahu. Expectations for progress on the Israel-Palestine peace process are very low indeed.


Bibi is once again expected to push Obama to define a "red line" for Iran's nuclear ambitions that, if crossed, would incur military intervention. And even the symbolism alone of Obama's visit could send a significant message to Tehran -- that despite the icy relationship between Netanyahu and the U.S. president, America and Israel remain unshakeable allys. (In speeches Wednesday, Netanyahu spoke of the “unbreakable alliance,” Obama the “unbreakable bond.”)


As the AP noted, "Obama landed amid new questions about the Syrian regime's possible use of chemical weapons." NBC reported that "Israel also worries that Islamist factions among the rebels fighting Syria’s Bashar Assad could seize control of the buffer zone between the two countries from the United Nations and threaten Israel with chemical weapons and long-range rockets captured from the regime." The use of chemical weapons by Assad's regime  will be a major talking point between Obama and Israeli officials. The U.S. has long said chemical weapons were a "red line" for possible military intervention in Syria -- as such the recognizable bang of American war drums is distantly audible.


On Thursday, Obama will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. On Wednesday in Ramallah, Palestinians staged street protests in advance of his visit. In the Daily Beast, Anna Lekas Miller reported on the modest-sized demonstrations:

Although the original call focused on the United States’ rejection of Palestinian statehood, those who came to Al-Manara Square on Tuesday afternoon seemed more concerned with U.S. military aid to Israel—which, at $3.1 billion per year, is by far the largest beneficiary of both military and economic aid. Many protesters had signs that played on President Obama’s “Hope and Change” slogan, with “NO” scrawled in red letters over the familiar campaign type face, and a smiling President Obama holding a rifle against the backdrop of a military tank.

Progress on a peace deal is not expected during Obama's trip. Indeed, commentators have argued that the president's show of solidarity with Israel at this point is a mistake in regards to the peace process. Floating international law and agreements with the U.S., Israel has continued with unfettered settlement expansion in West Bank. As Janine Zacharia noted at Slate:

[W]hen the president agreed to share the stage with Israel’s prime minister, Netanyahu lectured him before the cameras in the Oval Office on why Obama’s (hardly original) idea that the 1967 borders could be a baseline for peace negotiations with the Palestinians was bunk."

In 2012, Netanyahu—frustrated that he couldn’t goad Obama into saying when the U.S. would bomb Iran—publicly suggested the president had no “moral right” to stop Israel from taking action itself. All the while, Netanyahu, over the past few years, did nothing to further peace with the Palestinians. He floated via surrogates that he thought Obama was naïve on the Middle East. And he left the strong impression last year that he was rooting for Mitt Romney to win the U.S. presidential election.

In spite of all this, the president is headed to Tel Aviv. The anti-Obama peace-process skeptics can’t help but gloat. As Barry Rubin, a conservative, pro-Israel American pundit put it on his Facebook page: “I think we have just won a huge victory … Obama has admitted defeat on trying to bully, manipulate, or pressure Israel.”
While Obama has repeatedly condemned Israel's land appropriations as obstacles to peace and abrogations of international law -- he's offered little more than the occasional stern word to intervene in the building. Little is expected to change during this trip.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Iran Israel Israel-palestine Middle East Palestine Syria