I went to bed after a limited time with the news focused on the ceremonial swearing in of Knesset Members, and what seemed like the circular going nowhere blather about what kind of coalition Benyamin Netanyahu can assemble. Already well known are the problems. Yair Lapid and his second-largest party (There is a Future) wants to even the playing field between the Haredim and Israel's secular middle class, and to start a peace process with the Palestinians. Naftali Benet, the newly arisen leader of Jewish Home wants nothing to do with a Palestinian state, but also is no friend of the Haredim. Netanyahu wants the Haredim on the inside rather than the outside, and they have about the same number of votes as Lapid and Benet together. However, the arithmetic is that Netanyahu needs both the Haredim and Lapid and/or Benet to create a coalition. Neither Mr nor Mrs Netanyahu likes Benet personally. Moreover, Benet's party colleagues in the Knesset include some wild types who say that God settled things by giving all of His Promised Land to the Jews. Tsipi Livni (Movement) and Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) are somewhere, and talking about a peace process, but with not enough votes to be critical.
I woke up to the news that Barack Obama was coming to Israel.
That was a game changer, at least with respect to media speculators .
•Does this mean that the President is serious about jump-starting a peace process, despite all the well known problems in Israeli politics, Palestinian politics, and the chaos to the southwest in Egypt, the northeast in Syria, and tensions in Jordan, Lebanon, and the looming issue of Iran's nuclear program?
•Does Netanyahu's agreement to the visit at this time signal his seriousness with respect to the peace process, and will he use it to pressure Lapid and the Haredim to sit together, along with Livni and Mofaz, and use a coalition of that kind to try again with the Palestinians?
•Does the American President reckon with the charge that he is meddling in Israeli politics at an especially critical time, when he seems involved in pressuring wavering politicians to join a government coalition?
• Or alternately, does the American President reckon with the possibility that planning will go forward, but Netanyahu will agree to a coalition that makes any payoff of the visit highly unlikely?
The triumvirate of Obama, Kerry and Hagel (assuming Hagel wins Senate confirmation) produces some tingling in Israeli breasts. It suggests that peace may actually have a chance with a Washington cadre putting muscle behind something or other. Yet the reputations of naivete shared by those Americans lead to the concern that the disproportionate pressure will be on Israel rather than the Palestinians.
Being the much stronger and more stable element in the presumptive negotiations, it is fair to ask more of Israel than the Palestinians.
The question concerns the limits and the prospects.
Looking at Mahmoud Abbas, already four years beyond the end of his term, sounding grandfatherly decent along with a firm refusal to give up on the idea of refugees' return "home," and his weakness with respect to Palestinian factions even further into the wonderland of demanding everything, makes one ask about the political sanity of Barack Obama, as well as many other leading figures in America and Europe, and a few in Israel.
Only the infantile or the mad should expect Israel to concede the rights of Palestinian "refugees" and their descendants, or to withdraw anything like 50,000 or more "settlers" from the area of the West Bank beyond the lines of 1967. Note that 50,000 is a paltry 10 percent of the total, and withdrawing 50,000 is beyond imaging by anyone realistic about Israel.
Arafat and Abbas already said no to Israeli offers that Netanyahu-Lapid-Livni-Mofaz might repeat, but are unlikely to make more generous. Those who applaud Israel's democracy have to live with it. After two intifadas, several rounds with Gaza and Lebanon, the population is not enamored of snuggling down with cuddly Palestinians and expecting anything good.
While Israel's protocol squads may be preparing the wines and gefilte fish, the IDF is putting more anti-missile batteries in the north, and strengthening the barriers along the border with Syria.
Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah are threatening to revenge Israel's strike against whatever it destroyed last week in Syria, as well as renewing their established threats against the Zionist entity.
One needn't be a Neanderthal or God-reliant messianic to wonder about Obama's timetable. Even Ha'aretz, the canon of the Israeli left and guardian of Palestinian rights, has questioned the President's aspirations. Israel Hayom, financed by you know who and firmly in Bibi's corner, has a picture of Bibi and Barack, both smiling, and leads off with the expectation that the visit will be about Iran.
If Barack Obama's primary intentions concern the Palestinians, and if he is not prepared to get more from them than could Bill Clinton plus Ehud Barak in 2000 or Ehud Olmert in 2008-09, then the American President should stay home and save us Jerusalemites the traffic jams inherent in a Presidential visit.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem