In his first term, Obama pushed for a freeze on Israeli settlements, which hurt U.S.-Israeli relations. During the 2012 presidential election, Netanyahu openly supported the campaign of Obama’s opponent, Gov. Mitt Romney. Now it seems that the two leaders realize the importance of collaborating to help increase safety and stability for the region. Obama’s recent support of Israel during the skirmish with Hamas last November, as well as his monetary aid for the Iron Dome, a missile defense system, will likely strengthen the relationship between both countries, and this trip is an additional measure to ensure and certify the U.S.-Israeli alliance.
One of the larger topics addressed during talks was the necessity of preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons. Obama assured Netanyahu of his support, and asserted Israel’s right to defend themselves. However, Obama called for diplomacy before violence, and was focused on getting Iran to comply with international safeguards against armaments. Netanyahu didn’t disagree, but said that his red line for military action would be if Tehran comes close to enriching enough uranium for a weapon. At that point, Tehran would reach a “point of immunity,” meaning it would have enough nuclear capability to be invulnerable to physical attack.
Public opinion in America overwhelmingly supports Israel as an ally, but is split on support for Israel if it unilaterally attacks Iranian nuclear facilities (49% are in favor, and 49% are against.) Obama was hesitant to say he supported violence, asserting it can be used as a last resort, but primarily supported diplomacy, which seems to be in line with public thought.
While diplomacy is always preferable to violence, I fear that Iran will not comply with efforts for peace. With respect to warnings about its growing stores of uranium, Iran has replied that it has a right to “peaceful nuclear energy,” even though this nuclear energy can no longer be verified as “peaceful.” It seems that a more tangible and direct response plan should be proposed regarding Iran, with sanctions and other measures to prevent violence, as simply calling for diplomacy hasn’t been working.With respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the White House’s official statement declared that Obama was not visiting Israel with any plans to solve the dispute. Rather, the goal of his trip was to assess the impasse.
Palestinians responded to Obama’s trip to Israel by protesting Israeli construction in an area that is considered occupied. Palestinians want Obama to condemn Israel for its construction of new settlements in the West Bank. The topic of settlements being such a heated topic, neither Obama nor Netanyahu approached it at their news conference. Obama also reinforced the importance of the peace process when addressing young Israeli students at a conference. He called on them to pressure their leaders for peace, and urged them to look at the world through the eyes of Palestinians. He said that political leaders would not take risks if the people did not demand that they did. Speaking about the enemies of Israel, he urged them to move their tactics away from violence. Ultimately, in Obama’s eyes, Israel must realize an independent Palestine and only through that realization can the Israeli people be truly protected and peace achieved.
The basis of Obama’s stance for peace is that there must be sovereignty for Palestine as well as security for Israel. Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, has said that Palestinians believe peace is necessary and inevitable, while Netanyahu has said he desires peace as well. Although Obama did not bring up any sort of specific peace plan, I applaud his decision to speak directly to the Israeli public, making it not just an issue for political leaders but one that is as relevant and accessible to the public as it should be. People didn’t expect Obama to make peace possible on this visit, but there is certainly an expectation that he will do more to help in the near future. Obama’s trip was a step in the right direction, and he should continue by facilitating further diplomacy in the coming four years.
Another topic relevant to his trip pertains to the chemical weapons that Syria has supposedly been using against its people. Israel fears that, if these weapons fall into the hands of Hezbollah, they will be used against them. Obama has shown his support for Israel in this arena as well, warning the Syrian government to keep such weapons away from battlefields and Hezbollah while ordering an investigation to see if they are being used. Obama said that he was skeptical that they had been used, but said that if they were, it would be a clear cause for further action by the United States.
Critics of Obama’s trip say that he is not being a global leader since he hasn’t given military aid to Syria’s rebels. However, I believe it is important to assess the situation fully before rushing to arms, especially given the profound instability already shaking the region. Hasty action could cause further, avoidable turmoil.
Overall, Obama’s trip to Israel was a smart political move. He needed to mend relations with Israel, and the trip gave him the opportunity to assess the tense political climate between the region’s countries. It seems that in the near future, U.S. foreign policy will only get more complex and tense, and Obama’s decision to give attention to this area seems exceptionally pertinent. Obama’s trip was a step in the right direction, though I certainly believe that it ought to be followed up with more direct plans to give rise to change in the Middle East.
—Sara Lobo ‘16 is a student at Vassar College.