WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama dispatches his vice president to the Middle East on Sunday to try to build support for reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks despite deep skepticism on both sides.
Joe Biden will meet Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders starting on Monday, but a main component of his trip will be public diplomacy — reassuring anxious Israelis about Obama’s commitment to their security while explaining why they should be willing to make concessions for peacemaking.
Biden, who will be the most senior American official to visit Israel since Obama came to office in January 2009, faces a tough sell, Israeli officials and analysts say.
Obama may enjoy superstar status in other parts of the world, but not in Israel.
Many Israelis are distrustful of the president’s outreach to the Muslim world, a priority he highlighted with high-profile visits to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and, later this month, to Indonesia.
“If Israel is supposed to make sacrifices for a peace deal, the Israeli public has to be convinced it is receiving sufficient support from the United States,” an Israeli official said, calling Biden’s visit the beginning of that process.
U.S.-Israeli tensions flared over Obama’s early push for a complete Jewish settlement freeze, although his administration has at least temporarily backed off, embracing a more limited moratorium on new building. Other differences remain over next steps and the scope of renewed talks with the Palestinians.
Iran is another sore point for many Israelis, who see Obama’s focus on diplomacy and targeted sanctions to curb Iran’s nuclear program as wishful thinking.
Before Biden’s visit, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the case to Israel against taking military action against Iran, a message the vice president is likely to echo.
“A strike (by Israel) could be as destabilizing as Iran getting a nuclear weapon,” one U.S. official said, adding Israeli leaders “are very aware of our concerns.”
An Israeli official said the Americans had made clear Israel “doesn’t have a military option without U.S. clearance, and we don’t have clearance at this time.”
U.S. and Israeli officials said the main source of discord on Iran for the time being was over the scope of future sanctions, rather than the pros and cons of military action.
The Israeli official said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will meet with Biden during his visit, was “disappointed” by the sanctions proposed thus far by the United States. “This is not what we’ve been promised,” he said.
Asked if that meant Netanyahu would seek a U.S. green light for striking Iran, another senior Israeli official said: “We’re not there yet. … This is the time to act on sanctions and it is premature to discuss anything else.”
Israel has called for imposing “crippling” sanctions. Washington wants them to be targeted against hard-liners and is wary of broad-based penalties that could destabilize the Iranian economy as a whole and alienate its people.
SKEPTICISM ON BOTH SIDES
Biden was not expected to take part in indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks that would be spearheaded by Obama’s special envoy, George Mitchell, and could be announced during his visit, although he will be briefed on them.
Middle East analyst Robert Blecher of the International Crisis Group said the Palestinians saw little chance of success in “proximity” talks, which Washington hopes will lead to direct talks between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
“The Palestinians are completely skeptical anything useful will come out of them,” Blecher said. “They thought Obama was going to do the heavy lifting, that he would be the leverage and the power that they never had. … The Palestinian side has been greatly disappointed.”
Abbas has been further weakened by his Hamas Islamist rivals, who rule Gaza, leaving his U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority with sway in only the occupied West Bank.
The Obama administration has sought to put a positive spin on what could be achieved under Netanyahu, who, one U.S. official said, may be willing to “play ball” because he wants to secure a meaningful legacy as prime minister.
But it is unclear how much room Netanyahu has to maneuver. Heavy U.S. pressure later this year for Netanyahu to extend the partial moratorium on settlement building, or to accept a broader freeze, could destabilize the governing coalition.
Some Israeli officials and analysts think that could be part of the Obama administration’s calculation, and that Biden’s visit may be the start of a concerted U.S. public diplomacy effort aimed at influencing Israeli public opinion directly to bolster the country’s flagging peace camp.
“If it was Obama himself (visiting), it might have an impact. But there is a lot of skepticism here,” one Israeli official said, playing down Washington’s ability to shape the country’s views.