Monthly Archives: March 2013

Esther Bintliff

Barack Obama is only the fifth serving US president to visit Israel since the state was founded in 1948. As Marvin Kalb notes: “A presidential visit to Israel is not routine. Quite the contrary.So who are the other four?

President Nixon speaking during the official banquet at the Knesset. Photo: GPO​.

President Nixon speaking during the official banquet at the Knesset. Photo: GPO

1) Richard Nixon made history as the first US president to visit Israel while in office. He and the first lady, Pat Nixon, touched down in Israel for 24 hours in June 1974 as part of a trip that included Austria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan. According to Aaron David Miller, “Nixon’s trip was a largely a farewell tour, a last hurrah following his administration’s deep involvement in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the diplomacy that followed.”

The itinerary Nixon’s daily diary records that after giving a speech at Ben Gurian airport, the President “motored” to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (where the president and his wife were staying in suite 429) accompanied by Ephraim Katzir, Israeli president, and Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister. Later, he went to “the residence of Golda Meir, former prime minister of Israel”, along with Henry Kissinger and Rabin. The following day, Nixon and the first lady went to the Yad Vashem memorial, where they took part in a ceremony for Jews killed during the Second World War. Nixon then went to the Knesset and met the Israeli cabinet.

Gifts from Israel to Nixon: A papyrus scroll, a menorah and a book entitled “Justice in Jerusalem”

Hotel: King David Hotel

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Ferdinando Giugliano

Situation vacant? Mario Monti (Getty)

There were two big job vacancies in Rome last month. The Catholic Church began looking for a new pope after the shock resignation of Benedict XVI. Meanwhile, Italians went about the business of picking a new head of government who would end Mario Monti’s technocratic interlude.

The Vatican is not exactly known for its speedy decision-making. Yet it only took the conclave of cardinals a couple of days to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new head of the church. Pope Francis – as he is now – is already making headlines with his new message centred on the need for a humbler and more austere church.

On the other side of the Tiber, Italian politicians are still struggling to choose a new prime minister. Today and tomorrow, President Giorgio Napolitano is meeting party leaders and other institutional figures to talk about what to do next. But Italy-watchers do not expect white smoke to come out of the presidential palace any time soon.

Last month’s inconclusive elections have produced a three-way deadlock in the Senate between Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left coalition, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right alliance, and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. The only solution to the impasse is a government that is backed by at least two of these forces. But this trilemma has no easy solution. Read more

James Blitz

AFP/Getty

As Barack Obama visits Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week, he will doubtless find that one issue tops all others for the Israeli government: the need to persuade him to make a firm commitment to take military action over Iran’s nuclear programme if negotiations to scale back Iranian ambitions eventually break down.

President Obama said recently that he does not think Iran will be in position to get a nuclear weapon for at least another year. But Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s PM, is still looking for a firmer commitment from the White House that if the Iranians take their nuclear capability beyond a certain point, the US will take military action.

Whether differences between the US and Israel will be closed on this trip – or at some other point – is far from clear. Although it says Iran must not get a nuclear weapon, the US administration certainly views the timeframe for the Iranian programme in a more relaxed way than the Israelis do. Read more

More on the island rescue

Elsewhere in the world

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Jeremy Grant

Lee Kuan Yew on March 20 (Chris McGrath/Getty)

Lee Kuan Yew on March 20 (Chris McGrath/Getty)

Sightings of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s former prime minister, are rare these days. He is 89, physically frail and was hospitalised briefly in February.

But on Wednesday he popped up at a conference organised by Standard Chartered bank in the city’s Shangri-la Hotel, taking part in a “fireside chat” with Paul Volcker, the 86-year old former US Federal Reserve chairman.

Most people in the audience, which included the finance minister of the Philippines, were probably just as interested to see how the architect of modern Singapore looked, as in what he might have to say.

The last time I can remember seeing him in any public setting was last August, when he made a surprise appearance at Singapore’s national day celebrations.

The night before, taxi drivers were telling their passengers that the great man had died. His appearance silenced that gossip, but Singaporeans have been more conscious of their former leader’s mortality ever since.

Lee looked thin on Wednesday, but was dressed sharply in a dark blue Chinese silk jacket, with red cuffs. He made his way unaided to the stage and sat down. The only concession to physical decline were the sports shoes on his feet, which presumably help him walk more comfortably.

Much of what the founder of modern Singapore thinks about the big geopolitical issues of the day are well-known.

He doesn’t think that conflict between the US and China is inevitable (China needs the US export market for a good while yet); he doesn’t think that an “Arab Spring” is possible in Asia (there isn’t the vast disparity in wealth and incomes that exist in the Middle East); and Japan risks “dissolving into nothingness” if it continues to refuse taking in migrants to boost its working age population. Read more

Esther Bintliff

“We have no ambition in Iraq, except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people,” President George W Bush said in a short but memorable televised address on March 19 2003.

Today is the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. Anniversaries, however arbitrary they seem as preordained moments of pause, offer a chance for reflection that might otherwise get lost amid the 24-hour news cycle. In that spirit, here are just a few of the best anniversary reads we could find. Please share your own recommendations – there is a lot of great stuff out there – in the comments. Read more

Gideon Rachman

Xi Jinping (Getty)

Xi Jinping (Getty)

Fresh from his “surprise” election as president of China last week, Xi Jinping is about to set off on his first foreign trip. Later this week, he will travel to Moscow. The choice is a traditional one, and redolent of the Cold War, when Russia and China were the twin pillars of the Communist world.

Back then, China was the junior partner in the relationship. These days, although the Russians would be reluctant to acknowledge it, China is the more important partner – simply because of the sheer size and dynamism of its economy.

That said, there is a time lag in the way the two countries behave on the international stage. Russia is no longer a superpower, but still has the instinct to demand a central role in the settlement of the big international issues – just look at the role that the Russians have assumed over Syria. By contrast, China is an emerging superpower, but is still loath to take the lead on international issues outside of its immediate neighbourhood. Read more

On the Cyprus crisis:

In other news…

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Geoff Dyer

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama at a previous meetingBody Language. The worst-kept secret in diplomacy is the bad blood between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. When he was first elected, Netanyahu apparently felt Obama was trying to strong-arm him on settlements. It has been downhill since. There was the time when Netanyahu lectured Obama in the Oval office. Or the time when Obama told Nicolas Sarkozy: “You’re fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day.” Or when Netanyahu appeared to endorse Mitt Romney (he was just being polite to an old friend, the Israelis say). Or when Obama was quoted calling Netanyahu a “political coward”. Given that this squabbling is bad politically for both leaders, expect them to behave like the best of chums this week. Watch for how many time Obama calls Netanyahu ‘Bibi’.

The Peace Process. The White House has done everything it can to play down expectations about the launch of any new initiative on this trip to such an extent that Obama is being accused of going merely as a “tourist”. But given how little the White House has said about what the US might do or how much importance it places in the peace process in Obama’s second term, any hints or suggestions will be pounced upon.

John Kerry. One of the signals on the peace process will be how Obama talks about his new secretary of state, who will be accompanying him on the trip. Some in Washington expect Obama to state publicly that he is tasking Kerry with picking up the reins of the peace process, which would give him much greater authority. Read more

By Gideon Rachman
European leaders must surely know that they are taking a big risk with Cyprus. The danger is obvious. Now that everybody with money in Cypriot banks is being forced to take a hit, nervous depositors elsewhere in Europe might notice that a dangerous precedent has been set. Rather than run even a small risk of an unwanted financial “haircut” in the future, the customers of Greek, Spanish, Portuguese or Italian banks might choose to get their money out now. If that starts to happen, the euro crisis will be back on again – with a vengeance.