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Much Rides on Obama's Visit to Israel

By Peter Berkowitz - March 18, 2013

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Even in the best case scenario, one should not expect the president’s trip to yield dramatic announcements on Iran or Syria. But given the likelihood that a nuclear Iran would trigger an arms race in the Gulf region and thereby further destabilize an area of critical importance to the international economy, one should hope that Netanyahu and Obama make progress behind the scenes.

Progress would consist in improving cooperation on diplomacy, sanctions, and unconventional methods to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear program. Progress would also involve narrowing the differences between the United States and Israel over the appropriate red line regarding Iran.

When it comes to Syria, among the most important steps that the United States can take is to fortify Jordan. A pro-Western Sunni stronghold bordering Israel, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf of Aqaba, Jordan anchors the region. In the short term, the U.S. should increase foreign aid to help the regime contend with domestic unrest exacerbated by hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Over the long term, Americans would get substantial return on their investment by concentrating on programs to promote the study of English and basic computer competence for all Jordanian children.

The onus in Jerusalem this week is not only on the United States. Netanyahu might seize the opportunity, in the afterglow of Obama’s visit, to announce a new Israeli peace initiative.

The majority view in Israel is that the best solution to the conflict with the Palestinians is two states for two peoples, a view Netanyahu himself endorsed in June 2009 in a speech at Bar-Ilan University. But a majority also understands that the sides are too far apart today to reach a final agreement. For example, many Israelis who favor an independent Palestinian state maintain that it must be demilitarized, while many Palestinians who are prepared to accept Israel insist that the Palestinian state, to be a truly sovereign nation, must be free to make those kinds of decisions itself.

The obstacles to a complete and satisfactory peace in the short term are daunting and numerous. They do not, however, obviate the possibility in the short term of taking important steps toward peace.

For starters, Netanyahu should create an occasion to reaffirm his commitment to two states for two peoples and invite the Palestinians and other Arab neighbors to come to the negotiating table, as he did in June 2009 at Bar-Ilan. Only this time, and with the backing of the U.S., Netanyahu should declare that if, within a certain period of time, nothing comes of his offer to negotiate, Israel will carry out a partial though substantial withdrawal from major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank while securing its control over major Jewish population centers and strategically critical areas beyond the Green Line. Israel, Netanyahu should also emphasize, will continue to seek out every opportunity to pursue direct talks with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors.

Obama’s Israel visit is much more than a chance to let bygones be bygones, reestablish his relationship with Netanyahu on sounder footing, and connect with ordinary Israeli citizens. It is also an opportunity to advance vital American national security interests through collaboration with our most dependable ally in the region.

A United States that turns its back on Middle East politics, that takes its eye off the ball in Iran, does little to contain the conflict in Syria, and fails to understand both the importance of a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the formidable obstacles to achieving it will ensure that down the road it will have to contend with political and humanitarian crises created by a surge of refugees, the proliferation of weapons (including those of mass destruction), and the spread of terrorism in the region and throughout the world.

Hopefully, Obama realizes all this and will be coming to Israel with the understanding that there is no escape for the United States from its responsibilities in the Middle East -- and no substitute for prudent leadership. 

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 Peter Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.  His writings are posted at www.PeterBerkowitz.com and you can follow him on Twitter @BerkowitzPeter.

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