Click HERE to read APN's statement welcoming Obama's Israel visit.
Alpher discusses the new Israeli government, the confluence of the new government with President Obama's arrival, the policy options to be discussed during the visit, and the political ramifications of the final composition of Netanyahu's new government.
Q. On Monday, the Knesset will confirm the new Israeli government. On Wednesday, President Obama arrives. How do you view the confluence of these two key events? A. In early February, when Obama first announced the date of his impending visit, the timing appeared to be designed to send three signals to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as he set about forming his third government. First, the president of the United States, in his second term, will be more assertive with you regarding the need for a substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Second, the president intends to sit down with you at a very early date to ensure that Washington and Jerusalem are fully coordinated regarding Iran. And third, we have to be equally well coordinated regarding Syria, as that country descends into chaos and threatens Middle East regional stability. Netanyahu responded very quickly by bringing Tzipi Livni and her six HaTnua mandates into the coalition and giving her responsibility for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He thereby signaled the United States that the new Israeli government would ostensibly be more forthcoming than its predecessor regarding peace talks. He also maintained ongoing policies of restraint regarding Iran and Syria that he had adopted even prior to Israeli and American elections, while letting it be known that he understood his talks with Obama would focus on these three key topics. But arguably--and as predicted in these virtual pages back in early February--Netanyahu also concluded that he had to delay the formation of his new government as long as possible in order to avoid a possible unpleasant confrontation with Obama. It was perfectly clear from the start that the only viable coalition that could emerge from Israel's elections was one built around a partnership with Yesh Atid's 19 mandates and its anti-Haredi policies--and without the Haredim. Yet Netanyahu dithered for fully a month of predictably fruitless negotiations before sitting down for serious horse-trading with Yesh Atid and its temporary political partner, the national religious Jewish Home party. Indeed, he allowed coalition talks to reach the absolute constitutional deadline, so that his new government will be confirmed by the Knesset Monday evening, less than 48 hours before Obama lands in Israel on Wednesday. Now, when Obama sits down with Netanyahu Wednesday evening and repeats the statement he made in an interview on Israel TV channel 2 last week, that he is "coming to listen", Netanyahu can say, without blinking, "So am I. There's little I can say. My government has not yet formulated policies, filled key appointments, or discussed the issues. At least two members of my security cabinet, Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennet of Jewish Home, have no experience whatsoever regarding national security issues. Bennet, to his credit, even refuses to make policy pronouncements regarding Iran until he studies the issues." Netanyahu can even explain the absence of pre-visit confidence-building gestures on his part toward the Palestinians with reference to his last-minute coalition-forming timetable. A variety of recent reports had pointed to the possibility of release by Israel of veteran (meaning pre-Oslo) Palestinian prisoners, transfer of additional funds to the cash-stricken Palestinian Authority, transfer of territory from Area C to A or B, and delivery of additional weapons to Palestinian Authority security forces, in return for a Palestinian pledge not to have recourse in the near future to the United Nations--all in anticipation of the Obama visit. In fact, as of Monday none of this had happened. Perhaps this sort of confidence-building process is on Obama's agenda for Wednesday and Thursday. In this regard, and apparently by coincidence, the Israel National Archives released on Sunday minutes of meetings held in March 1979 between Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Jimmy Carter concerning the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Carter wanted Begin to ratify the treaty immediately, based on the two leaders' discussions. Begin--aware that withdrawal from Sinai and dismantling of Israeli settlements there was a controversial issue among his followers--deferred to his Cabinet and the Knesset, explaining that he needed the approval of these bodies, and postponed the signing, much to Carter's distress. Obama, be advised. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, incidentally, also found a way to signal to Obama in advance that he won't easily be budged regarding key negotiating demands of his own, like a settlement freeze. He visited Moscow last Thursday for a "balancing" visit with President Vladimir Putin. Abbas, lest we forget, received his doctorate in Moscow and is a Russian speaker. The US needs Russia in the search for a way out of the Syrian dilemma.Q. What else have we learned from Obama's pre-visit television interview and from additional commentary on the policy options to be discussed during the visit? A. It should now be apparent that Obama is coming to reassure the Israeli and the Palestinian publics, as well as the broader Arab world and Iran, of his commitment both to Palestinian statehood and to Israel's security as a Jewish state. In avoiding an address to the Knesset and preferring instead an audience of Israeli students, he is likely to stick to generalities on these two interlocking issues. "I think we're past the point where we should be even talking about preconditions and steps and sequences," he told channel 2. His caution seems to be reinforced by a Washington Post-ABC poll published Monday that shows only 26 percent of Americans favoring a leading role for the US in resolving the conflict. On Iran, Obama was more specific in the interview regarding "red lines"--an expression, like his repeated use of the Israeli prime minister's nickname, "Bibi", designed to put him on the same page with the Israeli mainstream. There is still a clear gap between Obama's red-line reference to Iran actually having a nuclear weapon and Netanyahu's insistence that the trigger issue is nuclear weapon capability. But the US and Israeli timelines are no longer so far apart and clearly focus on 2013 as a year of decision, though Obama may be hard pressed to persuade Netanyahu to acquiesce in the kind of partial deal with Iran that may conceivably be taking shape. One significant lacuna in the channel 2 interview concerns Syria, which was not discussed. It certainly will be when Netanyahu and Obama sit down, because in the near term this could be a far more volatile topic than either Iran's nuclear ambitions or the need for a serious peace process. In sum, here are two radically different possible "spins" that can be put on this visit from an Israeli or pro-Israeli point of view. Veteran Israeli left-wing leader (now retired) Yossi Sarid wrote last week in Haaretz: "The president wants to deliver his message directly and without mediation to the Israeli public, especially its younger members. Washington realizes that there is nobody here to talk to; this is its no-confidence motion in the Israeli government." David Harris, executive director of the right-of-center American Jewish Committee, countered in the same paper, "With both sides eager to make the visit a resounding success, Obama's trip to Israel could, in fact, turn out to be another important step forward in the bilateral relationship." For the record, the visit could also be remembered as something of a non-event in terms of long-term ramifications--or effectively as the inauguration of an American "stew in your own juice" policy toward Israel's disastrous mishandling of the Palestinian issue.Q. Any additional observations regarding the political ramifications of the final composition of Netanyahu's new government, now that it indeed is final? A. A number of key conclusions about the new government stand out. They are of great relevancy to any attempt to understand where this government is going. First, Netanyahu's Likud Beitenu may have "lost" the election, but you wouldn't know it from looking at his coalition. He held on to foreign affairs and defense, two of the three most important portfolios. And while he made heavy concessions to his principal coalition partners Lapid and Bennet, he managed to maintain a Likud Beitenu majority of ministers (12 out of 22) within the government itself. This, despite the fact that Likud Beitenu has only 31 members of Knesset in a coalition of 68. This means that in key votes, including in the Security Cabinet, in which Likud Beitenu will also have a majority, it can prevail over any combination of its coalition partners, including HaTnua. This is a significant achievement for Netanyahu, reflecting his ability ultimately to outmaneuver Lapid and Bennet. Netanyahu also succeeded in finding jobs for potentially disgruntled representatives of the Likud's hawkish younger leadership, despite having fewer MKs and having to accede to Lapid's demand for a smaller government. This means he is not likely to encounter too much grumbling within Likud ranks over the disappointing results of the elections. Of particular note among eight deputy ministers--positions Lapid had hoped to abolish in the name of efficiency--were the appointments of Dani Danon as deputy minister of defense and Zeev Elkin as deputy foreign minister. Then too, several largely fictitious ministries like Rearguard Defense, International Relations and Strategy, and Strategic Dialogue were also perpetuated in this government to keep Netanyahu's minions happy. There is even a brand new "Ministry for Pensioners". The deputy ministries may be superfluous, but they can do damage. The extremist Elkin will effectively run the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Netanyahu until (and assuming) Avigdor Lieberman works through his current legal difficulties. And Moshe Yaalon, the newly appointed defense minister and a skeptic regarding Palestinian good intentions, will presumably allow Danon to deal with settlement issues, thereby reinforcing a heavy pro-settler bias in this government. Indeed, regarding settlements it just gets worse: Jewish Home, the settler party, will hold the Knesset Finance Committee chair, the housing portfolio and Bennet's expanded economy portfolio, thereby virtually guaranteeing the free flow of funds to the West Bank settlers even in the unlikely case that Netanyahu feels obliged to agree to a temporary new, semi-fictitious "settlement freeze". Yaalon, incidentally, is generally cautious on the Iran issue, thereby signaling that Obama can expect an ongoing degree of cooperation on Iran. And the Lapid-Bennet plan for "sharing the burden" and bringing Haredi youth into the army and the Israeli mainstream has been thinned out and spread out over four years by Netanyahu's coalition negotiators, thereby softening the blow to Netanyahu's preferred political partners, the Haredim, whom he was forced to leave out of this government but still hopes to bring back through the rear door once the dust settles. Apropos matters of religion, Bennet's national orthodox team will now try to monopolize them at the expense of the Haredim. To secular Israelis, it won't make a big difference who runs the country's religious affairs: converts may now have a slightly easier time, but genuine Jewish pluralism is still a distant dream at the official level (though at the unofficial and day-to-day level, you'll still be able to do more or less as you please). And what can Tzipi Livni expect? Well, she can hardly complain, since by joining the coalition she saved herself and HaTnua from the oblivion to which Shaul Mofaz and Kadima are now consigned. Working with Lapid, she may be able to use the Justice Ministry for advancing useful reforms in the governance and justice systems. As for the peace process over which she will preside, her chances to overcome the huge settler lobby built into this government, coupled with Lapid's apparent indifference, are slim indeed. On the other hand, if and when she chooses to leave the coalition, it could hang by a thread, with only 62 MKs, rendering it vulnerable to the political opposition. And the opposition? Led by Labor's Shelly Yacimovich and Shas' Arieh Deri, it promises to fight to save what's left of the welfare state from Finance Minister Yair Lapid's campaign to bolster the middle class. But don't expect a fight over the peace process. Livni will be all alone in this government, backed only by Meretz in the opposition.