Little Hope for Change: Expectations Low for Obama's First Israel Trip

By Julia Amalia Heyer in Tel Aviv

Photo Gallery: Dead-End Diplomacy Photos
AP

Little is likely to change as a result of US President Barack Obama's visit to the Holy Land this week. Israel and the US have grown accustomed to the status quo, even as the threat increases that the Israelis may push ahead with settlement building that could eliminate the possibility of a two-state solution.

The diagnosis, says Shaul Arieli, is called cardiac thrombosis. The arteries are clogged and the patient is at risk of a heart attack. He needs surgery, the sooner the better -- but he doesn't want to have it. Instead, he insists that it's just a stomach ache, and all he wants is to take an antacid pill.

Arieli, 53, likes to speak in parables about his country, Israel, which he likens to this patient on the verge of cardiac arrest claiming just an upset stomach. "We have to be forced to save ourselves," he says. What he means is that for Israel there is no way around a sovereign Palestinian nation.

A retired general and former advisor to several Israeli prime ministers, Arieli is well acquainted with all of the peace plans and initiatives of the last few decades, and in fact took part in some of them. He helped negotiate the Oslo accords and the peace treaty with Jordan, and he participated in the talks at Camp David and the Taba Summit. The names of the peace plans may have changed, says Arieli, but they all arrive at the same dead end.

United States President Barack Obama's first visit as president to the Holy Land this week may be generating a lot of excitement, but the expectations that something will change in the muddled status quo between the Israelis and the Palestinians couldn't be slimmer.

The president himself has dampened expectations. He is reported to have said that the US can't want peace more than the conflict parties themselves. The Palestinians were told that they shouldn't get their hopes up, and that the president's goal in visiting Ramallah is "mainly to listen." In response, a Palestinian official grumbled: "There isn't anything he doesn't already know."

Inaction Suits Netanyahu

America's inaction suits Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister is pleased by the fact that the talks with Obama will be focused on the threat to Israel from Iran and Syria, and will only secondarily address "the need to find a responsible way to advance the peace with the Palestinians," as Netanyahu said in his video address to the annual meeting of the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC.

In Israel, the conflict with the Palestinians is no longer a central issue. The peace process was not a topic in the election campaign or during the six-week marathon negotiation to form a coalition government. Politicians and citizens were concerned with different issues in recent weeks and months, like reducing the number of cabinet ministers, social justice and the demand that the ultra-religious also make their contribution to the country's defense.

The center-right cabinet Netanyahu assembled last week contains 21 ministers, which is 11 fewer than before, and there are no ultra-orthodox members. Many Israelis celebrate this as a sea change. The possibility that perhaps, in the 46th year of the occupation of the West Bank, the country ought to have political priorities beyond reducing the size of the cabinet was noted only by the left-leaning newspaper Ha'aretz, speaking to a like-minded minority.

Despite new coalition partners, the government is sticking to many existing policies. The defense minister, a Likud hardliner and declared opponent of compromise, openly says he sees "no chance of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians in the near future."

'Building Will Continue'

Minister of Housing and Construction Uri Ariel, a member of the right-wing National Union alliance, will continue to pursue settlement construction -- and would like nothing better than to build a synagogue on the Temple Mount. When the United Nations envoy for the Middle East voiced his concern over what his appointment as housing minister signified for the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, Ariel replied that the "anti-Israeli UN" should stay out of the country's internal affairs. A settler himself, Ariel said in a television interview on Sunday that in occupied territory, "building will continue in accordance with what the government's policy has been thus far."

The surprise winner of the election, Yair Lapid, is now finance minister, although he would have preferred to be foreign minister. Whether the former TV anchor will find enough time to press ahead with negotiations with the Palestinians, as stated in the platform of his Future Party, is questionable. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has reserved the Foreign Ministry for his fellow party member Avigdor Lieberman, who is currently under investigation for fraud and breach of trust. A corruption trial against Lieberman failed to materialize because the key witnesses had either disappeared or died.

Could Settlement Spell End of Two-State Solution?

Retired General Arieli is standing on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, looking out at the Judean Desert. "E1," Arieli says, pointing into the distance. "The only area here that's still undeveloped." E1 stands for East 1, a piece of open land between East Jerusalem and the Maale Adumim settlement.

But it won't remain empty for much longer. The government now wants to move ahead with development in E1, after the project was kept on ice for years in response to American pressure. The planned settlement would cut the West Bank in half, and it could very well spell the end of the two-state solution.

"Only Obama can prevent construction from moving ahead here," says Arieli. "I'm an optimist out of principle, not because there are any reasons for it."

It seems as if no one will convince the patient with the failing heart that he needs to do more than swallow an antacid pill.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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