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Barack Obama is about to begin his first visit to Israel as president. It’s also his first foreign trip of his second term. On the itinerary is a stop at Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. He’s also expected to visit the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. While there, he’ll tour the Church of the Nativity with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. But perhaps most important is the face time he’ll have with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two leaders have had a rocky relationship and mistrust on both sides is said to be high. Diane and her guests talk about U.S.-relations and what’s at stake for the region.
- Ghaith Al-Omari executive director, the American Task Force on Palestine.
- Joyce Karam Washington correspondent, Al-Hayat newspaper.
- Nathan Guttman Washington correspondent for Channel 1 Israeli News and The Jewish Daily Forward.
- Aaron David Miller vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and former U.S. Middle East adviser in Republican and Democratic administrations.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. When it was first announced President Obama would be traveling to Israel this spring, hopes for a new Middle East peace plan rose quickly. But just as quickly, the White House tamped down expectations. We'll talk about the president's first foreign trip of his second term and U.S. relations with Israel and the region.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to in the studio: Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center, Joyce Karam of the Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat and Nathan Guttman of Channel 1 Israeli News and The Jewish Daily Forward. Please join us. You are always part of the program. Give us a call on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
MR. AARON DAVID MILLERGood morning, Diane.
MS. JOYCE KARAMGood morning.
MR. NATHAN GUTTMANGood morning.
REHMAaron David Miller, the White House has played down expectations for this trip. What do you believe the White House, President Obama hopes to achieve?
MILLERI mean, I think it's the intersection of politics and policy. I think you have a president that has the most dysfunctional relationship with any Israeli prime minister in the history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship and vice versa. I think it's all business. I think the president looks at this now as a political vulnerability. If he hopes to regain the House in 2014, work with Republicans, he can reduce his exposure by basically putting to rest the issue that somehow he's fundamentally an adversary of the state.
MILLERWell, that's objective number one. Number two is to create some measure of relationship with the Israeli public. His stock is very low although I suspect the polls aren't terribly scientific. But to the degree that he can create such a relationship, the prime minister, the political leap in the Israeli government read those polls, he can gain an additional advantage and some leverage over the substance. And, finally, the substance, the reality is clear.
MILLERIf Barack Obama does not want to be the American president on whose watch Iran acquires a nuclear weapon or the two-state solution expires, he's got to find a way to manage these issues. And central to that management exercise or resolution of these issues is the government of Israel. And I think the president has concluded that he's got to try to determine whether or not he can reach some sort of modus vivendi with the new Israeli government, particularly with the prime minister.
REHMNathan Guttman, what does Israel hope to achieve with this visit?
GUTTMANI think we can look separately at the Israeli public and the Israeli leadership. The Israeli public -- and it's interesting. Israelis generally love Americans, love America, admire America, but they seem to, for some reason, not get along with this president, whether it's because things that they think that Obama has done, whether it's because of a message they're getting from their own leadership. But I think the Israeli public wants to be embraced by President Obama.
GUTTMANThey want to see something more like Clinton style or even George Bush style, someone to come to Israel to express his appreciation, his understanding to the Israeli history and also some kind of a look at the Israeli struggle. Israelis feel that they're surrounded by hostile nations. They're looking around. They see the Arab Spring that they see as a significant threat, and they want some recognition of these fears and concerns by Israel's greatest ally.
GUTTMANAnd I think on the leadership level, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is entering now his second term as prime minister with the new coalition government, would also like to rectify his relationship with President Obama, not to turn it into a political liability to show that he can actually get along with the Unites States.
REHMAnd to you, Joyce Karam, what's the significance of President Obama going to the West Bank?
KARAMI mean, it is very significant. We've seen that the president had not had a good relation lately with President Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority. So this does represent an opportunity to mend fences with Abbas. President Obama will be releasing, for the Palestinian Authority, $500 million. He will be extending an economic lifeline almost to Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. I mean, Abbas himself is not doing that well in the polls.
KARAMHe's been asking President Obama to help him pressure the Israeli government to release some prisoners who were taken pre-Oslo period. So we'll see if any of that materialize. In the Arab street, however, there are a lot of questions why Obama is not visiting Cairo or going to Tunisia or Libya. I mean, this looks like Cairo tour in reverse in 2009.
KARAMBack then, Obama wanted a new beginning with the Arabs, so he went to Egypt. This time, it seems he's seeking a new beginning with the Israelis. So he's going to address mostly the Israeli public during this trip. However, he's not visiting -- I mean, even in Jordan, I don't think he'll be visiting the Syrian refugees or any of the hot issues that are now in the Arab world.
REHMSo how significant is the kind of parameters the president has laid out for this visit, Aaron?
MILLERAgain, I think Joyce is 100 percent correct. This is, in some respects, the reverse of the 2009 trip. Some would argue that Obama could have done himself a big favor by creating more of a balance by visiting Israel in the context of that Cairo visit.
MILLERBut right now, the issue is dealing with the Israelis, the Israeli public, and to some degree, demonstrating an issue -- an interest in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, even though the president is not carrying a plan. And it's very unlikely in the near term that you're going to see a resumption of those negotiations. But this is a trip very much focused on Israel.
GUTTMANI think one of the issues that would be center for this visit is can Obama actually create some kind of a working relationship with the Israeli leadership and the Israeli public that will allow him to comfort the space to move things forward further on along the road. It would be wrong to expect any kind of pressure right now from the president on the Israeli government. I think the word pressure will not be part of the vocabulary when Obama visits Jerusalem because that is exactly what the Israelis fear.
GUTTMANBut in a sense, if he does manage to convey the message that he is on Israel's side, that he has Israel's back, as he keeps on saying in public addresses over here, if Israelis feel that emotionally, then further down the road, there might be openness to any kind of discussion maybe about -- final status agreement seems to be off the table right now but at least interim measures or confidence-building measures with the Palestinian, and of course, for more in flexibility regarding Iran's nuclear program.
KARAMI mean, I think even the president himself does not expect to resume negotiations anytime soon. I think what he'll try to do in his speech in Israel is change at least the atmosphere on the ground. Right now, if you ask the average Palestinian or the average Israeli, there is not much hope left for the two-state solution. There is a lot of cynicism. So will Obama be able to revive this hope, this confidence that a true solution is possible in the second term? We don't know. But for that to happen, he has to sell his vision to both the Palestinians and the Israelis.
MILLERI know that there's a great tendency, but the president is going to the Middle East to focus on this as a Middle East trip. But I really think that the perspective here is broader. You have a president who is already historic. He's the first black president that we've had. The question is, can he be a great president? And in his own mind, that means being transformative, but not abroad. It means being transformative at home. Therefore, he's got to manage the kinds of issues abroad that could undermine that domestic legacy.
MILLERIran is clearly one of those issues. I see this frankly as a management exercise, an effort to essentially repair his relationship with the Israelis, reduce his vulnerability politically and then begin to try to figure out a way to manage the two issues that could hurt his reputation two or three years from now if there is no progress. One is Iran for sure, kinetic. The other is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He's not going to a Syrian refugee camp because the president's policies on Syria are not something he frankly wants to highlight right now.
KARAMI mean, is there a policy on Syria?
MILLERYeah, the policy is to focus on politics, and to some degree, humanitarian assistance but to stay out of, as long as possible, any sort of kinetic military intervention. That is clear over the last years.
REHMBut what about Iran, Nathan.
GUTTMANOf course, that's -- for Israelis, that is the main concern. I think the Israeli public views the Palestinian conflict as something that Israel can live with, that the Israeli public can live with. It's -- actually, we saw even in the last elections in Israel, it wasn't a political issue during the elections. But the Iranian threat is seen as an existential threat, and Israelis feel that right now the U.S. and Israel are still not on the same page. We heard President Obama make an interesting comment last week.
GUTTMANHe said that Iran can be a year away from a nuclear bomb. That did calm some people in Israel who were fearing that the Unites States does not have any timeline or any redline. But it's still different than the timeline that Israel has. Prime Minister Netanyahu was talking about the spring or the summer as a redline, and there's a six to eight-month gap between that. So there is still some discussion to have regarding this different perception of when does Iran become nuclear, when do you cross the redline. But definitely, there is a sense that the two sides are getting closer.
REHMAll right. We'll take a short break here. And when we come back -- I know there are many of you with questions, comments. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. When we come back, we'll hear from Ghaith Al-Omari. He's executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine.
REHMAnd now joining us, as we continue our discussion about President Obama's trip to Israel, the first foreign trip he has made in his second term. Joining us by phone from his office in Washington, Ghaith Al-Omari, he's executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine. Good morning to you, sir.
MR. GHAITH AL-OMARIGood morning, Diane.
REHMTalk about what Palestinians think of President Obama.
AL-OMARIActually, the president has gone to step in into, if you wish, two deep crises. One is, if you wish, you can call it a popularity deficit that the president has. He has popularity issues as a result of his position on the Palestinian U.N. bids and his inability to deliver a settlement freeze in his first term. On the other hand, of course, it's a presidential trip, and therefore there is a measure of excitement. And the question is, how do you bring down this excitement in order to try to cover some of the misgivings the Palestinians might have?
REHMYes, indeed. This morning, I heard some Palestinians express their excitement at the president's visit. What does or what will his visit to the West Bank achieve?
AL-OMARIAs your guests have indicated, there is nothing concrete to come out of it. However, the Palestinians will be looking at two sets of messaging from the president, one in relation to the two-state solution, and the two-state solution right now is undergoing a deep crisis of faith, if you wish, among Palestinians. Many do not believe that it's achievable.
AL-OMARIAnd it's important to hear from the president the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution even if there is no immediate plan. The second set of messaging will be related to the Palestinian institution building program. The Palestinians, over the last few years, have been trying to clean up their governance, to create effective institutions, and they want to hear support from the U.S. on this.
AL-OMARIThe fact is the president will be meeting separately with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is identified with this program, will be sending a message. The fact that he will be announcing the release of aid to the Palestinians will be seen as support for that. So these are the two messages that really need to be focused on and needs to reach the Palestinian public.
REHMAnd, Joyce, from your perspective, what is the importance of the president's visit to Ramallah?
KARAMIt is significant. However, I mean, he'll be only spending five hours in Ramallah between meeting President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, whereas in Jerusalem alone, he will be having dinner with Prime Minister Netanyahu for five hours. So that can give you a sense where the priorities are on this trip.
KARAMI think we are at a point in the relationship where President Abbas needs President Obama. I mean, their clash over the U.N. statehood damaged both leaders. Abbas made his point and got a non-assembly seat at the U.N. And President Obama needs Abbas as a negotiating partner.
GUTTMANI think Israelis also understand that despite whatever differences they have with the Palestinians, it is important to keep the two-state solution alive. It's probably politically impossible right now to move forward towards implementing the solution. But I think a message from the president both in Jerusalem and in Ramallah that the two-state solution is viable that the United States still backs it, I think that can also help drive home this message to the Israeli public.
REHMBut, Ghaith Al-Omari, how disappointed are Palestinians that the president will not be bringing a new peace plan with him?
AL-OMARII think in a sense because the White House has started from early on, almost as soon as the visit was announced, to tone down expectations, because the Palestinian leadership has been doing the same in terms of toning down expectations, I don't think you will see major disappointment. What you will see is reinforcing an already existing sense that the U.S. will not be making this into a priority. And what would be interesting, really, more than the visit is the follow-up that we will see when Secretary Kerry will go later.
AL-OMARIWe have been talking -- we've been hearing recently about some ideas of creating a package that is not about the big negotiation issues, but rather a package of measures that -- to be implemented on the ground, to improve the quality of life and the reality of life. If the president's visit is followed by some concrete action, then this might send a message about the U.S.'s interest. But in terms of the visit itself, I don't think anyone has any expectations, and therefore, there wouldn't be too much disappointment.
MILLERIt's -- and look, the visit is about a down payment for the future. And the question is, what is the size and character of that down payment going to be? On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the fact is the conundrum we all confront is that the two-state solution right now is simply too complex to implement, and yet it's too important to abandon. And it's within that space that the president -- and let's be clear. Barack Obama is the most controlling, dominating foreign policy president since Richard Nixon.
MILLERJohn Kerry wants to be active on this. There's no question about that. But the question is, will he be allowed to be active? And I think the answer to that question is yes, if the president perceives that there is some sort of stake on the part of the Israelis and the Palestinians and some prospects of success. I would make a prediction to you. I think this president, by the time he's done, will, in fact, want to leave his mark on this process.
MILLERAnd I would certainly not be surprised. In fact, I would anticipate that within a year plus, you will hear more and more about the so-called Obama parameters. That is to say an effort by the United States to identify what its views are on the four or five core issues that now drive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is at that point that the fascinating interaction between the government of Israel and the government of the United States and the Palestinian authority will really become intriguing.
KARAMI don't see Obama as a dominating foreign policy president especially in the Middle East. Many look at the U.S. administration today and they see them largely absent. I mean, we talked about Syria. We're talking about Egypt. We haven't seen negotiations -- direct negotiations between Abbas and the Israelis since September 2010. The pivot to Asia worries lot of Arabs. So there is sense that the U.S. role is in decline in the region.
KARAMThere is a sense that that this administration does not want to be involved on the ground, and many fear that the Iranian nuclear issue that Washington might give a pass or go with a containment strategy on Iran. And with the Arab Spring mostly, I mean, we're seeing more instability in the Arab world. And the fact that Obama is not visiting any of these capitals is very concerning.
REHMNathan, do you believe that the president and Prime Minister Netanyahu might find agreement on Iran before the president leaves?
GUTTMANProbably not an explicit agreement that we'll hear about in public statements when they walk out of the prime minister's office, but I think they can reach a better understanding on the parameters and basically on each one's real red lines. I think Netanyahu, if the visit does go well, can gain some more trust in President Obama, can actually believe Obama when the president says the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear bomb.
GUTTMANAnd in the same side, I think Obama can get a good sense of whether Netanyahu is bluffing or not when he talks about or when he hints about a possible Israeli unilateral attack. And if you can reach this kind of trust between the two sides, then coordinating in the future could actually be easier. And that would probably be one of the greatest achievements of this visit.
MILLERLet me make clear what I mean. When I say that Barack Obama is the most dominating controlling foreign policy president since Richard Nixon, I don't mean that Barack Obama is projecting American power in the region. What I mean is that all power flows from the White House. Ask Hillary Clinton. The reality is she owned not one consequential issue. On the core issues, all decisions are made by the president.
MILLERThe fact is America's house is broken. And the reality is we have to be very careful, in response to Joyce's point, about when, how, why and whether we project American power abroad. Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War and Afghanistan to boot -- the two longest wars in American history where the standard for victory was never could we win but when could we leave. And that is a demoralizing, truly demoralizing waste of American resources. So my only point is be careful, be cautious, pick your spots.
KARAMBut a greater American role does not have to be a military action in the region. It could be displayed on the ground in Cairo or more involvement in Syria.
MILLERI don't -- I just don't accept that at all. I think the one virtue of the Arab -- so-called Arab Spring is that for better or for worse, for the first time in their modern history, the Arabs own their own politics. We have $1.4 billion of aid every year to the Egyptian military, hundreds millions more in excess to defense articles.
MILLERDo you really believe that we have the power and the capacity to change the arc of Egyptian politics, to undermine Mr. Morsi's control and to support a secular and liberal opposition that is both inchoate and fundamentally weak and disorganized or to restructure Syria? No, I don't believe that. And I continue to believe that we need to fix our own broken house first and be very careful about intruding in the affairs of others.
REHMBut, you know, Aaron, you are suggesting that the president is making this trip to make sure he shores up Republican support in this country.
MILLERI think it's less a matter of that, Diane, and reducing his own vulnerabilities. He either is going to have to find a way to cooperate with Republicans on a variety of issues, including gun control and immigration reform and a big deal on the budget if it's at all possible. And also, he wants the House back in 2014.
REHMOf course. Ghaith, I wonder what your own thoughts are.
AL-OMARIActually, I mean, I tend to agree with Aaron on this one and what I've been hearing from Palestinian officials. You know, they present himself that this trip is just going to be a trip that is Israel-centric and that will be more about messaging than deliverables. The real question is: Will we have a secretary who is empowered? And I think we'll start seeing very soon after the trip a series of tests, the Palestinians and the Israelis testing to see whether Kerry has the backing of the president, whether he owns the file.
AL-OMARII think this is where the, if you wish, interesting diplomacy will start manifesting itself. I think this trip itself, it is accepted that nothing good is going to come out of it and that the president will not be personally be engaged at least in the first term. Now, after a year, two years, who knows what happens? But for the short to medium term, the real question is: Will we have an empowered secretary, or will this issue be left adrift?
REHMAll right. Ghaith Al-Omari, he is executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine.
AL-OMARIThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's open the phones. I hope you can stay with us, Ghaith.
AL-OMARII'll be there.
REHMAll right. First to Houston, Texas. Good morning, Julie.
JULIEOh, good morning. Thank you for taking my call.
JULIEMy question is, in view of our economy and the crisis that we are having in this country, the fact that the Republican Congress cannot convene anything near a budget with the president, should we be giving Israel the $3.1 billion a year that we normally give them plus the $9 billion or so loans that they eventually do not pay because they get taken off the books? How can we do that to our American people with that happening?
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call. Nathan.
GUTTMANWell, the $9 billion are in loan guarantees. The United States does not have to pay anything that guarantees loans that Israel takes international market in order to keep interest low so that does not come out of that in the U.S. budget. The $3.1 billion in budget, first of all -- and we should also note that foreign aid in general for the entire world comes to 1 percent of the U.S. budget. So it's hard to see how it will make a huge impact.
GUTTMANI think it is a consensus here in Washington and, frankly, throughout the world that this $3.1 billion is a pretty good investment. It's an investment in stability in the Middle East in helping a democracy and in making sure that at least one region has a little more stability than others. And it's easy to locate -- Aaron mentioned the Iraq War, about the cost of war. The cost of maintaining stability is much more -- it's much cheaper than the cost of war.
REHMAnd, Ghaith, how do Palestinians feel about that aid going to Israel?
AL-OMARIOK. First of all, there is also a good amount of aid coming to the Palestinians. So there's an understanding that the U.S. is trying to work both sides. But on the political clauses, at least in Palestine, there's an understanding that a strong U.S.-Israel relations will give the U.S. more leverage vis-à-vis Israel. And so in the same way that Obama addressing the Israeli public will increase American effectiveness, maintaining the aid will increase American effectiveness and leverage.
AL-OMARIAnd the president's ultimate ability, if he chooses to engage -- to actually directly engage the Israeli public and get them to treasure their government, just like Clinton did under Netanyahu and his first government. So I think it's -- as Nathan said, there's an understanding that this is a good investment and an investment that ultimately pays out in a stronger American rule.
MILLERYou know, the latest Gallup polls, they're stunning. It never ceases to amaze me given the differences that separate the United States and Israel on a variety of issues that the broader American public continues to be incredibly supportive or at least acquiescent in this relationship. And I think it underscores one fundamental reality: Rightly or wrongly, most Americans see the Israelis as an extension of American value affinity.
MILLERDespite the occupation practices, the reality is in this neighborhood, which is broken, angry and dysfunctional, with an Arab Spring that is truly disappointing, not only the Arabs themselves but I think broad sectors of the international community, the Israelis remain, at least in this country, a pretty easy sell. Support for Israel, according to Gallup, is at an all-time high. It really is remarkable.
KARAMI think many Arabs question whether this is a blank check for Israel or whether it can be used, you know, on the security for peace argument. Many Arabs don't mind stability in the region, but they would like to see more pressure from the White House towards more Israeli steps for peace.
REHMJoyce Karam, she is Washington correspondent for Al-Hayat newspaper. Short break and more of your calls when we come back.
REHMAnd right back to the phones to Easton, Mass. Good morning, Noreen. You're on the air.
NOREENYes. My question is why President Obama has chosen to basically spend most of his time in Israel and doing tourist-type things and a very little time in the Palestinian territories. In particular, why he's chosen not to visit the places like Hebron where he would be able to actually see, as I did last year -- I was there last spring -- why he is not choosing to see places like Hebron where there's a settlement on every hilltop, where there's a cemetery, a Palestinian cemetery, that has been declared a security zone so that Palestinians cannot visit their family's grave because it separates Hebron from the settlements.
NOREENWhy he's not able to see that Hebron, most of its marketplace is closed and that there are nets holding garbage that's been thrown down on top of the few people that choose to remain open. Why he's not choosing to see separated sidewalks where the Israelis walk on one side and Palestinians on the other. And not seeing these is being not representative of American democratic values. Israeli's democratic values and American's -- America's democratic values have a huge schism between them.
REHMAll right. Thank you. Ghaith, how do you respond?
AL-OMARIActually, Diane, first of all, this is typical of American visits to Palestinian territories. I mean, from Clinton onwards, an American president would only show up for a short time for security and other reasons. By the way, he is going to Bethlehem. And in doing so, he will be exposed both to Palestinian cultural symbolism but also to see the situation entering into Bethlehem through the settlements and through the wall, et cetera.
AL-OMARISo I think he has gone out of his way to send the symbolism out there. But, remember, this is primarily an Israel-centric trip. This is, in a sense, as Aaron said, this is the box that he needed to check. This is, if we wish the four-year delay to counter to the Cairo stitch. So the center of this trip for political reasons as well as for foreign policy reasons is going to be Israel.
KARAMI mean, I think it's also another indication that the White House is abandoning the first-term strategy of calling for settlement freeze and making this the core of the peace process effort. I think we'll hear less about settlement freeze or visits to settlements or talk about the occupation than we've heard from President Obama in the first term, and as Ghaith said that this is an Israeli-focused trip and attempting to reconcile with the Israeli public.
REHMHere's an email saying, "Why do so many Israelis think it's OK to expand settlements when the United Nations and country after country contend it's illegal?" Nathan.
GUTTMANWell, the fact of the matter is that there are Israelis on the right side of the political map that -- or the extreme right, that do believe that the West Bank is part of Israel, historic part of Israel and Israelis should settle there. But for the vast majority of Israelis, it's not about supporting settlements as much as not really putting much trust in the peace process with the Palestinians.
GUTTMANIf we look poll after poll, there is a gap between the Israeli public's willingness to compromise and to reach a two-state solution based on territorial compromise and the fact that no one really thinks that it's possible right now. So under these circumstances, Israelis not so much support the settlements as don't oppose them as long as there is no other alternative.
REHMGhaith, do you want to comment?
AL-OMARIActually, it's a very interesting mirror image that we see between Palestinians and Israelis, the same bionomics that Nathan talked we see Palestinian side. Most Palestinians, around 60 percent, believe that two-state solution is the most desirable outcome. Yet a lot of the majority believes there is no partner on the other side. And therefore most do not believe that two-state solution can happen.
AL-OMARIAnd so you have a dynamic where behavior that is not consistent with the two-state solution is not confronted with the public outcry. And from the Palestinian point of view, Israeli settlement expansion is the biggest indication that Israel is not interested. So yes, we will not see any focus now on settlement freeze, but as long as settlements continue, we can expect to see Palestinian faith in the two-state solution continue to erode.
REHMAll right. To Williamsburg, Va. Hello, Brett.
BRETTHi, Diane. And God bless you for the level of discourse that you conduct.
BRETTI'm wondering if there's any flexibility in the president's travel plans. And in particular, he might head north to Haifa. Haifa is a well-kept secret in its attempts to get along among the ethnic groups and religious groups there maybe especially because of the presence of the Baha'i World Centre. But is there any chance that some surprise and good travel plans will occur?
MILLERYou know, I've been on many of these trips. They're actually pretty predictable, and unless there is some secret stop that the White House has been hiding from all of us -- and if, in fact, there were, it probably will be outside of this specific area. These trips really don't allow, and they're so carefully scripted.
MILLERAny diversion from the main story -- and the main story here is dealing with the prime minister touring Jerusalem, conversations with Netanyahu and a number of other stops -- the big speech by the president at the convention center in Jerusalem. Haifa is a fascinating example and the embodiment of what is possible in cooperation, though, between Arabs and Israelis.
REHMNow, Aaron, where do Israel and the U.S. either come together or stand apart on Syria?
MILLERYou know, I think there -- it's a question of, I think, in a pretty much of a consensus on the two or three issues that confront the United States and Israel, the consequence of the current situation. One is the using or the losing of chemical weapons. If this report is true -- and I doubt it that the rebels...
REHMThere is a report this morning...
REHM...from the Russian Foreign Ministry saying that Syrian rebels have used chemicals weapons killing 16, injuring 100 others. However, the rebels themselves say that the state has used the chemical weapons.
MILLERI mean, should that report would be true -- and that's a Syrian ally trying to, I think, defend its friend. But should it be true, it would indicate a degree of proliferation that we haven't seen, a losing of these weapons.
REHMAnd news outlets say these reports are still unconfirmed.
MILLERYeah. And we're talking about 65 sites, 300 metric tons of chemical agents dispersed all over the country. The Pentagon estimates it would involve 50, 60,000, even more forces in order to secure these things, so that's a problem.
REHMSo you're saying both Israel...
REHM...and the U.S. have decided to simply keep hands off.
MILLERI think there are contingency plans. I think the United States would be working the Turks and Jordanians to deal with these contingencies. And the second issue is the Golan Heights. Should that agreement signed on June 1, 1974, which has made the Golan the quietest space in the region, somehow be turned into an area in which you have cross-border attacks, it's the second cause of concern. So, yeah, Assyria is heading south in a very dangerous arc.
KARAMI agree with Aaron. I mean, well, this report on the chemical weapons just emphasizes the -- another troubling sign that the conflict is getting more militarized by the day. Both the regime and the rebels are getting arms. Now we see -- we heard Secretary Kerry yesterday that the U.S. could not block France and Britain if they decide to send arms to the rebels, so all the signs indicate that this war is going to even get more intense. And with no political solution on the horizon, I think we're more likely to see more of these reports.
GUTTMANI think this really started off initially when the civil war in Syria broke out two years ago. Israelis did view it as an internal issue. Israel had a kind of, you know, weird working relationship with President Assad.
GUTTMANHe kept the border quiet, and whatever went on in Syria was OK. But now, as the Syrian state is disintegrating, Israelis are concerned about many issues, some of them Aaron mentioned. But also others, what happens if not only chemical weapons, if advanced anti-aircraft missiles reach the hands of the Hezbollah? What happens if a huge wave of the refugees destabilizes Jordan? Israelis are looking north with it and growing concern.
REHMAll right. To Kensington, Md. Good morning, Irene.
IRENEHi there. I had a question for the representative for the -- from the American-Palestinian Task Force on Palestine. I want to know why you object to choose living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, given that the only time in the last 3,000 years the Jews had not lived in those areas were the 19 years of the illegal Jordanian occupation when the Palestinians and Arab League ethnically clinched those areas of Jews?
AL-OMARIWell, I mean, I don't object to Jews living in the West Bank. What I advocate for is two states for two nations. The only way to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is to create, alongside the state of Israel, a state of Palestine. The possibility of Jews in the future living in the state is a possibility that we have frankly discussed when I was an official, as a negotiator. These are issues that were discussed. But what you need right now is to separate: the Palestinians in their own state, the Jewish people in their own state.
AL-OMARIAnd from thereon, we can start talking about normal relations. Right now, if we keep on talking about it as Jews versus Muslim and what have you, it would turn us into a religious-based conflict. And it's not. It is a national conflict. We will resolve the national political conflict through creating two states.
AL-OMARIAnd then the issue of Jews living in Palestine or Palestinian-Arabs continuing to live in Israel and what have you are things that we can talk about, but, right now, without the separation, the conflict will continue. And as long as the conflict continues, you know, the price is one that we all know. So in our interest, we need to get peace immediately and that is through establishment of a two-state solution.
REHMAnd to Dan in Florida. Pronounce the name of your town, Dan.
REHMUh-huh. All right. Go right ahead.
DANThank you for taking my call.
DANEarlier, your guests cited stability in the region as the main reason why the United States has this ongoing support for Israel, a major financial support. I guess its $8 million a day. Personally, I think that's one of the main reasons why we went into Iran. I was listening to "The Sean Hannity Show" one day and that 10 years ago, they said Israeli intelligence sources have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
DANSo we're, you know, you look at would the cost we had to do this 10-year war. A good part of the reason was Israel. We're going to go into Iran for Israel. We probably got attacked on Sept. 11 for a good major reason, it was Israel. What do we get out of this? We blindly support this apartheid regime that we created, and we're paying for it and I don't see why.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Aaron.
MILLERYou know, so many distortions in that question, and I'm not going to deny the fact that there are differences. I'm not going to deny the fact that over the last 40 years, Israelis have undertaken actions that had made life for the United States much more difficult than this region. There's no question about it. But number one, Israel is not an apartheid state. I just got back from South Africa. And you talk to white and black South Africans and they'll tell you about the history of apartheid.
MILLERNumber two, we did not go into Iraq because of Israel. We went into Iraq because you had an administration that for a variety of reasons believed that this discretionary war was necessary. Every intelligence service in the world -- the Brits, the French, the Russians and, yes, the Israelis and the Americans -- believed that there were weapons of mass destruction. There weren't any, and this war, in many respects, was a tremendous waste in American lives, credibility and treasure.
MILLERWe support the state of Israel for many reasons but one more important than any other and the public polls continued to bear it out: Since 1950 there have been 22 countries in the world and only 22 that have maintained their democratic character continuously. The Israelis are one of those. And it is in the broadest conception of American national interests, despite the differences and our opposition to Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza and the way they deal with Palestinians, to continue to support like-minded societies.
GUTTMANAnd just to add a word about how does U.S. aid provides stability, the United States provides Israel with military aid. It's not civilian aid. The aid is used to strengthen Israel's military power, and therefore, provide Israel with some more space and to react moderately to issues in the region. I think we can only imagine what would happen if Israel would feel unsecure in -- and that doesn't have the military power that it needs when facing Iran that's arming itself with nuclear powers.
KARAMI think the bottom line in this is the current status quo is unsustainable and security aid alone is not going to make it sustainable. For that reason I think a movement on the peace process towards a two-state solution would make life better both to U.S., Israel and the Arabs. So maybe Obama can create a better atmosphere for resuming negotiations after the trip, maybe he can give Abbas some confidence measures towards that goal. I mean, we shall see.
REHMNathan, how far do you believe that this trip will go in closing the trust gap between Obama and Netanyahu?
GUTTMANWell, first of all, we have to hope that the unexpected won't happen. We've seen visits of American presidents and secretaries of state when they landed in Israel only to hear about another settlement being built or an expansion of a neighborhood. And Israelis try to make sure that this will not happen this time.
GUTTMANSo assuming everything goes as expected and as planned here in Washington, I think this can actually help a lot both in the public perception of President Obama and also in the way he relates to Prime Minister Netanyahu. It won't erase the fact that for the past four years the Israeli leadership saw Obama as somewhat hostile to Israel, whether rightly or not. But it will -- I believe it can go along the way in starting this improvement.
REHMNathan Guttman, Washington correspondent for Channel 1 Israeli News and The Jewish Daily Forward, Joyce Karam, Washington correspondent for Al-Hayat newspaper, Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center and Ghaith Al-Omari, he's executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine. Thank you all so much.
MILLERThank you, Diane.
REHMThanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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