JERUSALEM — “Next time you’re in the neighborhood, stop by.”
Those familiar words could have been said to President Obama by his Israeli friends last month when he was in Istanbul and still can be said to him on the eve of his trip to Cairo next month.
After all, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was one of his main talking points while in Turkey and will be again when he uses the Egyptian capital as a platform for his address to the Muslim world, June 4.
But a visit to the Jewish state and a foray into the Palestinian Authority were not on his diplomatic agenda neither then nor now.
One gets the impression that Israel has been sidelined at best or is being pushed out of the loop at worst.
The Obama administration seems to prefer tough talk to social grace in dealing with the Israelis while its attitude toward the Palestinians apparently needs little if any personal backup. It believes they are ready for a state of their own and that its establishment is a strategic American interest — the sooner the better.
This was made crystal clear to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his tense and partly discordant meeting with the president May 18. The vision of a “two-state solution” inherited from his predecessor was reinvoked with unprecedented vehemence, not only by the president, but also by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
To help make it come true, the United States has been building a military infrastructure for the projected Palestinian regime — investing millions of dollars in arming and training a Palestinian police force partly modeled on Israel’s quasi-military border police force.
Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, who is in charge of this project, already has three brigades ready to go into action and hopes to have seven more by the time his assignment is completed in 2011. During the remaining two years of his stint here, Gen. Dayton reportedly will serve as U.S. Peace Envoy George Mitchell’s deputy. Michell is about to open a permanent office here for the duration of his mission.
According to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot’s astute military affairs columnist, Alex Fischman, these contingents will not be able to challenge the Israeli armed forces or prevent them from operating in the West Bank whenever Israeli security requires such action, but they could become a dangerous obstacle to IDF operations.
Netanyahu does not believe that the current situation justifies the presidential dream — not with the pro-Iranian Hezbollah deployment in southern Lebanon, “Hamastan” in the Gaza Strip (the same Iranian-backed Islamic extremist regime that expelled Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah personnel after Israel’s ill-considered pullout in 2005, not with the possibility that Hamas may gain control of the West Bank and replace Abbas’ dissent-ridden “Fatah” regime and not with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which are destabilizing the region.
Nor is there unanimity among the West Bank’s Palestinians that statehood and sovereignty is their overriding need. Time magazine’s Jamil Hamad, a Palestinian who has served as its Jerusalem correspondent for more than two decades, says the infrastructure for statehood simply does not exist.
“We need more hospitals and other facilities, highways, social services and better schools,” he said, referring candidly to the 28-year run up to Jewish statehood during which the requisite institutions were created.
Several political analysts contend that Abbas’ control of the Palestinian Authority is tenuous if not flimsy, that his Fatah supporters are weakened by dissension and that corruption in the government is rampant. They doubt that he will be able to convene the equivalent of a party convention or that the projected West Bank election will be held on schedule.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has decided to defy President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton by refusing to prevent the West Bank’s Jewish settlers from building additional homes, clinics and schools within their existing communities. Regardless of whether one favors or opposes settlements it is unreasonable to demand that the normal course of human life — marriage, childbirth, education and illness — not be accommodated.
That is why it would be a good idea if President Obama deigned to drop by and have another firsthand look at the situation in Israel rather than having to rely on seemingly hard-nosed advisers to shape his policy. He ought to bear in mind the Israeli maxim that guided former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: “What you see from here you can’t see from there.”
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at Jay@actcom.co.il.)