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Why Obama is heading for Israel

President Barack Obama’s decision to make Israel his first official visit abroad after the inauguration is both symbolic as well as hugely substantive. Symbolic in the sense that he will be underscoring the centrality of the Middle East in the United States’, foreign policy agenda, and signaling that carrying Israel along is useful.

The likelihood of Obama pitching hard for a settlement of the Palestinian problem appears very remote. The visit to Israel — March 20 has been mentioned as the likely date — is partly necessitated by the prospect of Obama having to continue to deal with PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Their personal equations have remained poor. 
Meanwhile, the election verdict in the Israeli parliamentary poll with the unexpected swing favoring the left may offer a thin hope that the new government may see the light of reason, moderation and flexibility in the Israeli policies rather than remain fixated on the old game of militarily dominating the region.
But Israeli reflexes show no genuine interest in a rethink, as the recent brazen air strikes on Syria show. Indeed, the Hezbollah, Syrian regime and Iran decided not to retaliate so that Israel won’t have the pretext for triggering a regional conflagration just when things are generally moving in a promising direction from their point of view.  
As Israel sees it, the weakening of Syria almost on the same scale as Iraq’s (plus the disarray in Egypt) tilts the strategic balance in its favor. Ideally, Israel would like to see Syria getting dismembered and its formidable armed forces coming to resemble a Lebanese-type ragged militia. 
Israel would like to achieve two concrete gains in the developing situation, namely, grab some more strategic depth in land inside Syria for its Golan Heights buffer zone and, secondly, create a pretext to degrade the Hezbollah’s military capacity. 
But the key issue during Obama’s visit to Israel will be the US’s upcoming talks with Iran. Obama will carry some attractive economic and military goodies to raise the Israelis’ comfort level, including  possibly a further strengthening of the ‘Iron Dome’ and would hope for a better Israeli appreciation of his Iran policy. 
Meanwhile, Tehran is responding to the US’s overture with caution but hopefully. The reaction by President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad sums it up — Tehran hopes to “witness positive changes in their [US's] behavior” and if that happens, “we will study it with a positive attitude.” Ahmedinejad deliberately let a golden opportunity pass to have a rhetorical punch at the US, while on the high-profile visit to Egypt. No doubt, Israel is keenly watching. 
All in all, therefore, the spectre that is haunting Israel is 3-fold. One, the latest signs are that the Syrian opposition is moving toward a dialogue with the regime in Damascus. Two, there might be progress on the Iran nuclear issue at the next round of negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 due to take place in Kazakhstan on February 25. 
Three, the US might engage Iran in a bilateral dialogue, which would signal the beginning of a process of legitimization of Iran’s rise as regional power and its integration into the international community. All these, especially a US-Iran normalization, would have profound consequences for the balance of power in the Middle East and will rewrite the rules of the game as it used to be played in the region for the past several decades. 
Clearly, Obama’s mission is hugely substantive. Its single-minded objective is to put ring after ring of engagement around Netanyahu that reduces the space for the latter to act like a petulant ward when a tap dance of delicate diplomacy is about to begin on the big stage.          

Posted in Diplomacy, Politics.

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