Obama visits Saudi Arabia, Cairo – why not Israel?

Many Israelis see the president's decision to bypass Jerusalem as part of a broader shift in US priorities in the region.

Gerald Herbert/AP
President Barack Obama talks with Saudi King Abdullah at the start of their bilateral meeting at the King's Farm in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday.

On the eve of President Obama's historic visit to Cairo Thursday, where he will deliver a major speech that is expected to include his outlines for Middle East peace, many here are noticing signals of a shift in the relationship between Jerusalem and Washington.

Obama, who was in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and will speak in Egypt on Thursday, will not come to Israel as part of the trip. While there has been no official Israeli comment on this choice of itinerary, some observers see it as a symbol of how much has changed between Obama and the past few administrations, both under Republican George W. Bush and his predecessor, Democrat Bill Clinton.

"What we sense is a shift here in his entire approach to the Middle East. But from the get-go he's been raising the status of America's relationship with the Muslim world, and there's a suggestion that this might translate into additional pressure on Israel," says Dr. Michael Widlanski, a research fellow at the right-leaning Shalem Center in Jerusalem. "This is perceived as a sign to the Arab and Muslim community that the US administration is more interested in their feelings than before, and Obama is clearly trying to redress the situation where he felt the Bush administration has alienated part of the Islamic world."

Heightened US-Israeli tensions over settlements

All of this comes against the backdrop of a growing flap over Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. Over the past week, Obama's administration has repeatedly made clear that it wants Israel to enforce a full halt in settlement growth, including a stop to what successive Israeli governments have described as "natural growth" as families expand and adult children marry and settle down near their parents. The 2003 road map for peace, which Israel agreed to, called for a freeze on settlement growth, which Palestinians see as undermining the feasibility of the future state they hope to establish.

Israel's new rightist prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has shown reluctance to agree to any kind of settlement freeze and is under pressure from settlers and other right-wingers to refuse such a move.

Israel removed a major West Bank roadblock Wednesday and has begun, in the past week, to dismantle small settlement outposts – tiny satellites of existing settlements that are largely seen as an attempt to annex more land to existing settlements and thereby prevent land from being turned over to the Palestinian Authority in negotiations. These moves were apparently intended as gestures toward peace on behalf of Netanyahu's government ahead of Obama's Cairo address.

Israelis skeptical of Obama's overtures to Arab world

The June 4 speech to the Muslim world, Obama administration officials point out, fulfills a campaign promise to heal rifts exacerbated over the past decade. Obama is not expected to focus primarily on the Arab-Israeli conflict, though there are hopes and rumors that he will use the opportunity to mark clear goal posts for pushing peace forward.

"The speech could just as easily have been in Jakarta or Islamabad," one US official said. "There will be mention of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but that's not going to be the focus of the speech."

But the Shalem Center's Dr. Widlanski says that many Israelis are skeptical of Obama's attempts to woo the rest of the Arab countries and the larger Islamic world.

"People here are going to think [he's] naive or weak," he adds. "That's a strong view in Israel, and not just on the right. You have a change of feeling here in Israel, in which people are very disappointed so far with the Obama administration's approach to Iran, to the Taliban, and also the wishy-washy approach to North Korea."

That there is a wider horizon in Obama's sights is a reality that many Israelis do understand, says Peter Medding, a professor specializing in US-Israeli relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"Is it a snub? Obviously not. He has a message he wants to deliver to the Arab and Muslim world, and the place to deliver it is not Jerusalem or Tel Aviv," Professor Medding says.

"There's a big, broad Mideast agenda here of which the Israeli-Palestinian [conflict] is part but not the only part, and may not even be the crux of the matter. I don't see any change in basic American policy since 1967, which has been in favor of withdrawal from the territories. The question is how do you bring that about.

"But the relationship between the US and Israel is deeper than the territorial question," he adds. "In the past few days, Obama has come out loud and clear on the significance of the relationship with Israel. He isn't going to jettison it out of the plane without a parachute."

Speech can't be 'just a cordial gesture'

Some of the unknowns are expected to clarify themselves soon enough, as both Israelis and Palestinians tune in to hear what the new US president has to say. But Israelis largely seem to expect that he won't present anything of substance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because, they say, they prefer solutions worked around negotiating tables away from the media limelight.

Palestinians, however, see it differently.

"This speech is a speech calling for reconciliation with the Arab and Islamic world, and we hope it will create a qualitative change from the positions of the US regime under President Bush," says Najat el-Asta, a Palestinian legislative council member from Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah Party in Ramallah.

"However, I think this speech will be enriched if he introduces an initiative toward establishing peace through the implementation of a two-state solution," says Mr. Asta. "This speech cannot just be a cordial gesture towards the Arabs and the Muslims. It has to respond to concerned parties in the Arab-Israeli conflict."

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