Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Diplomatic Visit with Political Consequences

by Dan Margalit

Any visit by an American president to the Middle East is a very important diplomatic event. Such visits are carefully orchestrated and are intended to send international messages, even if not explicitly. This is certainly the case with U.S. President Barack Obama's upcoming visit to the region. Four years ago, Obama visited the Middle East and was satisfied with giving an ill-conceived speech in Cairo, without bothering to land in Israel.

One of the aspects of Obama's planned trip is the impact it will have on Israeli coalition talks. The White House is aware of the arithmetic difficulties that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces in forming the next coalition and is closely monitoring Netanyahu's priorities. 

Talk about Obama's upcoming visit will boost those favoring the renewal of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. It is reasonable to assume that Obama would not have agreed to come to Jerusalem and Ramallah without securing promises of at least a rhetorical return to the negotiating table.

The Americans believe that Netanyahu would not want to greet Obama with a coalition of only Shas, Habayit Hayehudi and Kadima (with United Torah Judaism supporting the government from outside). In this regard, the announcement of Obama's visit at this time is meant to encourage Likud-Beytenu to have someone from the Center-Left in the coalition when the American president comes to town. 

In some ways, Obama's upcoming visit strengthens Yesh Atid and Hatnuah in their coalition talks with Likud-Beytenu on the issue of setting a diplomatic agenda that includes the resumption of negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But this issue has not been a major bone of contention in the coalition talks, as Netanyahu knows there will be a need to repeat the familiar refrain "two states for two peoples" when the U.S. ups its pressure during Obama's second term. 

Obama wants to visit Israel after the formation of the next government. In the wrestling match of coalition talks, an idea was raised on Tuesday night that I first presented in a column the day after the election, which is that the coalition should be formed in two stages. In the first stage, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid would give Netanyahu the narrow majority required to pass an equitable enlistment law and also perhaps the next state budget. After this, Shas would join the government and receive ministerial portfolios that had been promised to it in advance and held in reserve. 

The multi-stage establishment of a coalition has been a legitimate political technique since Menachem Begin first used it 35 years ago. The option remains on the table.

Dan Margalit


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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