Forward Thinking

March Madness, the Obama Visit Edition

By J.J. Goldberg

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With barely two weeks to go before President Obama’s scheduled visit to Jerusalem, the Israeli right seems to be gearing up to prepare as hostile a welcome as possible.

Round one is a dubious claim that received considerable coverage Monday in the Israeli media, according to which Obama is demanding that Prime Minister Netanyahu give him a detailed “timetable for Israel withdrawal from the West Bank” when he arrives March 20.

The claim was first reported in a right-wing Washington news outlet, the World Tribune, which based it on anonymous “sources” in Jerusalem. The Tribune report was then widely re-reported in the Israeli media, including such mainstream outlets as the Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post and Ynet.

The World Tribune quoted its sources as saying that the Israeli plan “would be considered in what could be an imminent U.S. initiative to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank in 2014.” The report said Obama had indicated to Netanyahu (given an “implication,” the report said) that “if Israel won’t give him something he can work with, then he’ll act on his own.”

Most sources familiar with Obama White House thinking have said repeatedly that there are no concrete plans for advancing an Israeli-Palestinian settlement at this time. Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted February 26 saying Obama was coming to Jerusalem “to listen” and was not bringing any new initiative with him.

That hasn’t stopped a variety of respected conservative pundits in Washington and Jerusalem from speculating that Obama and Kerry must be up to something and warning them to back off.

The World Tribune is the first to claim to have concrete knowledge of a new Obama peace initiative, though. On the other hand, it’s not clear what it might an Obama threat to “act on his own” might entail, unless he’s planning on sending FBI agents to dismantle settlements.

The report adds, citing the pro-settler Israeli daily Makor Rishon, “that the Netanyahu government would destroy numerous Jewish communities in the West Bank,” apparently referring to Netanyahu’s reputed proposals to honor Supreme Court orders to dismantle certain illegal outposts built on privately owned Palestinian land.

The World Tribune calls itself “the only American newspaper that focuses on international news,” which itself might be news to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and ForeignPolicy.com. Its website lists 12 “content partners,” beginning with the far-right Drudge Report, Breitbart.com, NewsMax.com and WorldNetDaily.com.

It’s not clear whether the World Tribune “report” is intended for an American audience or an Israeli one. There is little likelihood that a scenario as outlandish as the one described could be taken seriously in the Obama administration, which in any event is not planning anything of that nature. However, it could easily be directed at the coalition negotiations underway in Jerusalem, where the settler factions in Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party are preparing to join a Netanyahu-led coalition with secularist Yair Lapid and, more alarming to settler leaders, Tzipi Livni. The prospect of an Obama-directed West Bank withdrawal plan emerging full-blown in the next two weeks might be thought believable enough to hard-liners among Bennett’s followers to stiffen their resolve in the final rounds of negotiating the coalition’s policy guidelines.

The same can’t be said of an opinion essay that appeared Monday on the Ynetnews.com website, the English-language companion site to Yediot Ahronot’s popular Ynet. The essay, titled “Things you can’t see from DC,” warns that American policy operates under the false, outmoded assumption that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible, when in fact “The Palestinians were never willing to make do with a small state of their own. They want ‘justice,’ revenge, recognition as victims and above all—the ‘right of return.’”

The author is former Israeli national security council director Giora Eiland, a respected strategist and retired major general known for his hawkish views. Eiland drafted Ariel Sharon’s 2005 Gaza disengagement plan despite his strong opposition to the plan and then resigned in protest, while remaining close to his opposite number in the Bush administration, Elliott Abrams. In a rare departure for Ynet, Eiland’s essay appears does not appear on the site’s heavily trafficked Hebrew side but only on its English site, which usually carries only translations of Ynet’s original material, suggesting that it is aimed at influencing Washington rather than Jerusalem.


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