Saturday, March 23, 2013

Assessing President Obama's Trip*

Alan Dershowitz

Now that President Obama is on his way back from his trip to the Middle East, its potential impact can be assessed. All in all it was a success, despite some pitfalls.
Whenever a high ranking American dignitary visits Israel, there is concern that something will happen—new settlement building, further rocket attacks—to spoil the visit. It happened again, as President Obama was visiting President Abbas, having had a positive meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. This time the spoiler was neither Hamas nor the settlement builders (though rockets were fired and settlements expanded). It was The New York Times, running an extensive and illustrated story casting doubt on President Obama's signature gift to Israel: America's financial support for the joint anti-missile system called "Iron Dome."
The success of the Iron Dome has been central to Israeli-American relations, as well to the security policies of both countries. An anti-missile system capable of destroying up to 90% of Hamas rockets directed at Israeli population centers has made it possible for Israel to focus on prevention rather than deterrence.
This means fewer and shorter counterattacks in Gaza, which translates to fewer casualties on both sides. The success of the anti-missile program also promised enhanced protection against Iranian-inspired rocket attacks from Hezbollah, and perhaps even against a potential nuclear attack by Iran (though the technology for deflecting long range missiles is different than that used to destroy missiles from Gaza and Lebanon).
Along comes the New York Times with a devastating and detailed critique headlined "weapons experts raise doubts about Israel's anti-missile system." Experts quoted in the article suggest that the success rate of Iron Dome is a small fraction of that claimed by Israel and the United States—as low as 35 to 40% rather than 90%. Some experts claim it is even lower than that, which would make it an abject failure rather than the glowing success recently claimed by Vice President Joe Biden and other officials.
Whoever turns out to be correct factually, the perception will now be that Iron Dome is not nearly as effective as claimed. This will embolden Hamas, Hezbollah, and perhaps Iran. It will make Israelis more suspicious of their own government and less appreciative of America's considerable contribution to Iron Dome. It will also create increased insecurities among Israeli citizens who were counting on Iron Dome to protect them. The timing of the New York Times article could not have been worse, coming out right in the midst of President Obama's visit with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and just before his talk to Israeli students. It raised a distracting cloud over his repeated assurances that America will continue to support Israel's security through projects like Iron Dome.
Despite this bad news, there was much good news from the visit. There were reports that President Abbas might be willing to begin negotiations before Israel implemented a settlement freeze, so long as Prime Minister Netanyahu provided private assurances that a freeze would begin after negotiations were underway. This is a slight variation on a proposal I had made to President Abbas back in the fall, to which he had agreed. President Obama's visit had many goals. His viewing of the Dead Sea scrolls was intended to emphasize the deep Jewish and Christian relationship to the Land of Israel. His appearance at the Tomb of Theodor Herzl was calculated to assure Israelis that during his speech in Cairo, he had not intended to suggest that Zionism began with the Holocaust. His talk to the students manifested his need to speak directly to the Israeli people rather than only to its leaders, because Israel is a vibrant democracy. His casual and warm encounters with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his family were intended to show the world that their relationship is better than how it has been portrayed in the media. All of these symbolic stops achieved their goals. It remains to be seen, of course, whether the unspoken goals of the trip were achieved: namely, moving the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority closer to negotiations; and persuading the Israeli leadership that the American approach to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons should obviate the need for Israel to act unilaterally in the near future.
President Obama did emphasize the truism that Israel must remain free to take whatever decision it feels necessary to protect itself against a nuclear armed Iran, but I suspect that this green light was openly flashed with the knowledge that Israel has no current plans to take advantage of it. Although differences remain between the red lines laid down by both countries, the two leaders seem closer together on this issue than ever before. Finally, Obama's approval and trust among Israelis has improved as a result of his media interviews, his talk to the students, his positive approach to Israel's security and the absence of any demands that Israel make unilateral concessions prior to negotiations. All in all, it was a good beginning, despite the upsetting news about the Iron Dome. What happens next will determine whether there is a happy ending. *An earlier version of this article appeared in Haaretz

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