Obama heads to Israel on multi-purpose visit

Bassem Aly & Yasser Seddiq, Wednesday 20 Mar 2013

During a visit to Israel on Wednesday, US President Barack Obama is expected to discuss Iran's alleged nuclear weapons programme, Syria, the peace process, and reaffirm the US-Israel strategic relationship

President Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One during his departure from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Tuesday, March 19, 2013 (Photo: AP)

President Barack Obama will visit Israel on Wednesday on the first round of a Middle East tour which will also include the West Bank and Jordan.

Coming four months after his re-election for a second term, Obama's visit to Israel raises a number of questions.

"Obama didn't visit Israel during his first term, but went to Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia, so his message is to say that he doesn't want to boycott Israel, which is as a strong, regional ally," ex-US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer said at a press conference in Cairo on Monday.

In addition to reaffirming the United States' strategic relationship with Israel, analysts believe Obama has other issues on the agenda, namely the peace process, Iran's nuclear activities, and Syria's ongoing civil war.

Iran & Syria: Inseparable concerns  

Iran held new rounds of nuclear negotiations with world powers in Kazakhstan last month amid severe international sanctions on its oil sector.

Since 2006, Tehran's nuclear programme has caused a deterioration in its relationship with the international community.

Mohamed Abbas Nagi, an expert on Iranian affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said Iran wants to exhaust western negotiators with "time-consuming and futile marathon talks" through putting non-nuclear issues on the table during nuclear talks.

"From my point of view, the West will never agree to the inclusion of discussions about the Syrian crisis during nuclear talks. The West rejected such proposals at the Baghdad conference in May 2012," commented Nagi.

Iran, in addition to Russia and China, has backed President Bashar Al-Assad since protests against the Syrian regime began in March 2011.

"Obama knows that confrontation with Al-Assad is impossible," William Rugh, US former senior diplomat in Damascus, said in Cairo on Monday.

"Obama has usually favoured diplomacy and multilateralism over aggressive foreign policy approaches, and Syria has many international allies whom Obama would prefer not to confront," he said.

Last week, US President Barack Obama said Washington would provide food and medical supplies to the Syrian rebels, marking an unprecedented US commitment to sending non-military aid to rebels that are battling Al-Assad’s troops.

What Israel thinks about Iran?

A disagreement between Obama and Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in 2012.

Some Democrats accused Netanyahu of interfering in US presidential elections by trying to coerce Obama into setting "red lines" regarding Iran's nuclear programme and into staging a military attack on the Islamic Republic.

Nevertheless, Obama has consistently recommended Iran be approached diplomatically.

In his two terms as a prime minister, Netanyahu has only ever dealt with Democrat presidents, first Bill Clinton and now Obama.

However, the Israeli premier's relations with the incumbent US president are at best frosty and he is often quoted as having said "I speak Republican."

"There can be no doubt that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would feel more comfortable dealing with the Republican Mitt  Romney," AUC political science professor science professor Bahgat Korany said during the US presidential race in November.

On Palestine

Such regional complications might provide little room for Obama to tackle the peace process.

Soon after he was elected four years ago, Obama delivered a speech at Cairo University during which he declared his support for a two-state solution and the freezing of all Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

For six months, Obama attempted to persuade the Israelis to take these steps and pave the way for US-brokered Palestinian-Israeli talks.

However, Netanyahu's rejection of the Palestinian right of return, the continuation of settlement building and the gradual waning of US calls for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, resulted in negotiations grinding to a halt.

In addition, on several occasions Obama called Israel America's "closest" and "most important ally in the region," a viewpoint also frequently put forward by his rival Romney during the presidential election campaign. 

Obama's preoccupation with the US financial crisis was a key reason behind his failure to fulfil his commitment to the Palestinians, Mohamed El-Ississ, economics professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC), points out.

“There has been little US attention on the Palestinian question recently," Magda Shahin, former Egyptian assistant minister of foreign affairs for international economics, notes. "Iran embodies the toughest challenge. Netanyahu was clever enough to change the focus of Washington."

However, Kurtzer argues the only solution to the conflict must come through Obama's efforts to revive peace talks as Washington did in the previous decades.

"From my experience on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I feel that both sides are too strict to sacrifice any of their demands, which is why they fail", he said.

"If you are asking whether the US failed on this crisis, the answer is yes; but we have to try again and again."

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