Employees in the town of Kfar Saba sew flags in preparation for the upcoming visit of Barack Obama (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama will visit Israel on Wednesday 20 March. It will be the first foreign visit of his second term. The trip will be dominated by three foreign policy issues – Iran’s nuclear programme, the Syrian civil war and the Middle East peace process.
Those issues will do much to define how his presidency is eventually judged. This will not be an easy visit for Obama; his relations with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s PM, are notoriously frosty. “Obama has done a lot for Israel but many Israelis are still uncertain to what extent he is a true friend of their country,” says one veteran foreign diplomat. “If he wants to persuade Israelis to move on issues like the peace process he needs to convince them he is genuinely on their side.”
But this visit has to be more than just a charm offensive. Three questions will determine whether it is a success. Read more
Israeli soldiers stand guard at an army post in the annexed Golan Heights on January 31 (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Reports that Wednesday’s Israeli air strike somewhere near Syria’s border with Lebanon was on an arms convoy destined for Hizbollah have been denied – sort of – by the Syrian regime and its paramilitary Lebanese ally.
Throughout Wednesday, Hizbollah, normally prodigious in its denunciations of any and all Israeli aggression on its al-Manar television station, maintained the stoniest of silences. Today, al-Manar moved swiftly to endorse the account given by Syria’s state news agency: that Israeli warplanes had hit a military research facility in Jamraya, near Damascus.
There is no cast-iron corroboration of anything at this stage. Israel is saying nothing. But beyond fuelling fears that Syria’s civil war will spread, Israel’s actions have led to some interesting statements. Read more
The former Republican senator can expect a bumpy ride as he answers questions on how he would play the role of President Obama’s new defence secretary. Hagel needs to persuade at least five of his former colleagues to support him to avoid a filibuster that would torpedo his appointment.
Ben Fenton, from the FT’s Live News Desk, and Johanna Kassel follow the hearing.
Israeli politician Yair Lapid (Getty)
The cruellest but most revealing tweet about the Israeli election exit polls came from the American writer Jeffrey Goldberg: “I wonder if someone in the White House is right now researching the question, ‘who is Yair Lapid, and what exactly does he think?’”
Exit polls need to be treated with caution and Israel’s political system is particularly complex, but the early indications are that Lapid, a former television personality and leader of the self-described “centre-centre” Yesh Atid, has been the big winner of the elections.
The Obama administration had expected to be dealing with a Benjamin Netanyahu emboldened by a commanding electoral win and leading a coalition that was even more right-wing in its distaste for doing a deal with the Palestinians. According to the script, Nafatli Bennett of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, and not Lapid, was supposed to be the new star. Instead, the most likely outcome seems to be a more chastened Netanyahu looking to Lapid and the centre to help him form a new government. Read more
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits an east Jerusalem settlement in October 2012. (Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images)
Israelis go to the polls today in an election widely expected to return Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister for a third term – an historic achievement in the turbulent world of Israeli politics. A hardliner who has not hidden his backing for settlement building on occupied land — despite issuing qualified support for a Palestinian state in 2009 — Mr Netanyahu has successfully portrayed himself as a strong leader who can protect Israelis in a tough neighbourhood in the face of widespread international criticism.
That the already hawkish Mr Netanyahu was outflanked on the right by a charismatic new candidate, Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, has become the main theme of the election campaign. Mr Bennett makes no bones of his opposition to a two state solution with the Palestinians, and advocates the annexation of at least part of the occupied West Bank. His success in the campaign is part of a sharp shift to the right in Israeli politics.
In the FT:
- Naftali Bennett burst onto the political scene when he was elected leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party in November and he is emblematic of Israel’s rightward shift. He and his party campaigned hard in working class areas, underlining their support for Eretz Yisrael (Greater Israel, including occupied Palestinian land). His rise alarmed liberals and pushed Mr Netanyahu to the right on the campaign trail.
By Gideon Rachman
In a normal time, in a normal country, Benjamin Netanyahu would be a political giant. Read more
Controversy has swirled around the candidacy of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defence, centred on past comments the Republican former senator made about the “Jewish lobby” intimidating congress, sanctions and military action against Iran, and the Pentagon budget.
Amid the his nomination, there have also been an increasing number of opinion pieces in the US press dissecting what James Fallows in The Atlantic describes as a “de-legitimizing campaign” against the decorated Vietnam veteran.
- Fallows uses a headline from the US satirical news website The Onion to suggest that the imminent nomination could be a “this is bullshit” (‘this’ being the campaign against Hagel) moment for President Barack Obama.
- Commentary fiercely critical of the nomination has been published, among others, in the neo-con Weekly Standard, citing a top Republican Senate aide emailing: “Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.” In the Wall Street Journal, Brett Stephens also aired his disapproval at Hagel’s perceived prejudices against the Jewish community.
What does the vote upgrading Palestine’s status at the UN to “non-member state” with observer status actually mean? Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, was quick to rubbish the vote as essentially meaningless in her speech. She could be right. But it all hinges on whether the Palestinians will now be able to pursue the Israelis through the International Criminal Court in the Hague. If that happens, then this really is a big deal. If the ICC does not come into play, then today’s vote matters a lot less.
As far as I can gather the legal situation is very unclear – and different lawyers take different views on whether Palestine’s new status will allow it to use the ICC. Inevitably, politics will also come into play. It would be a bold and risky decision for a fledgling institution like the ICC to go after Israel, since that would immediately and possibly permanently sour relations with the US. Most of the European powers would also be opposed. The reason that Britain abstained on today’s vote, for example, was this hovering question of the ICC and the refusal of the Palestinians to give assurances that they would not head straight for the Hague. On the contrary, Mahmoud Abbas hinted heavily in his speech that he was considering doing exactly that. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
Anybody might think that Susan Rice is gearing up for a confirmation hearing. Last week, the US ambassador to the UN tweeted: “I condemn today’s cowardly terrorist attack targeting innocents on a Tel Aviv bus.” Yet trawling back through her Twitter feed over the previous week, there is no indication that innocents might be dying anywhere else in the Middle East. The word “Gaza” is noticeable by its absence – although the ambassador did find time to hail America’s Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Ceasefire agreed in Gaza but will the calm hold?
After a short and bloody conflict in which at least 152 Palestinians and 5 Israelis died, a ceasefire has been declared between Israel and Hamas. In this week’s podcast, Gideon Rachman is joined by Tobias Buck in Gaza City and Middle East editor Roula Khalaf to discuss the recent fighting and its implications for the wider region
In Israel and the Gaza Strip, there might be no real winners from the week-long conflict that ended last night. But there is already a clear loser, writes Roula Khalaf – he is Mahmoud Abbas and he is the president of the Palestinian Authority. Read more
In wartime, everyone wants a hero. The one that has emerged from Israel in recent days is no individual soldier, but a technology: the so-called ‘Iron Dome’. Read more
Whatever happens on the diplomatic front in the latest conflict over Gaza, defence analysts will be reflecting for some time on the big military revelation of recent days – the role played by Israel’s Iron Dome interceptor and what it tells us about the value of missile defence systems. Read more
Last month, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, made two announcements regarding his country’s stance on the Iranian nuclear programme.
First, he said that Israel would not be going ahead with a unilateral military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities this year, abandoning the much feared “October surprise.” Secondly, he spelled out a new “red line” that Iran will not be allowed to cross as far as its nuclear activities are concerned. This will be the moment when Iran has acquired enough more highly enriched uranium to build one nuclear bomb – a moment that in Mr Netanyahu’s view may come by next summer.
In recent days, Israeli officials visiting London have spelled out the details regarding this new red line. In their view, Iran by next summer will have acquired some 240kg of more highly enriched uranium (that is uranium at a 20 per cent concentration). This could be converted by Iran into enough weapons grade uranium (at a 90 per cent concentration) to provide Iran with one nuclear weapon.
The difficulty for the Israeli government is that while western leaders are relieved that Mr Netanyahu postponed plans for a strike this autumn, they don’t regard his new red line as having much credibility either. Read more
Under normal circumstances, an American president running for re-election would do his utmost to avoid a row with the Israeli prime minister. But I wonder whether President Obama really will be damaged by his semi-public clash with Benjamin Netanyahu?
The conventional argument is that the Jewish vote is very important in two vital swing states, Florida and Ohio. The major American-Jewish organisations are passionate in their support for Israel and their concerns about Iran. So being perceived to be tough on Israel and weak on Iran is dangerous for Obama. Read more
Tobias Buck, our esteemed Jerusalem correspondent, dropped into my office the other day. He told me (tactfully) that I was probably wrong, in my recent blog post, to give such credence to the idea that Israel is on the point of bombing the Iranian nuclear programme. I should return to my previous scepticism.
As it happens, I had already reconsidered, after reading this analysis by Shai Feldman. Feldman stresses the significance of the recent public opposition to a strike, voiced by President Shimon Peres. Read more
At a demonstration in March, an Israeli protester holds a sign directed at Benjamin Netanyahu (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Until recently, I have always been sceptical about the idea that Israel will stage a unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But, in recent months, I’ve changed my mind, because so many people I know who follow the issue much more closely than me, seem convinced that it will indeed happen.
Because of the sensitivity of the issue, most of the conversations I’ve had have been off-the-record. But the people who’ve told me that they think an Israeli attack is imminent include: a top European politician (although that was in January), a senior British defence official (speaking in June), one of the best think-tank analysts, Mark Fitzpatrick of the IISS; another top think-tanker from the US. Most recently, a French diplomat who deals with the Iran dossier, told me that he expected an Israeli attack within weeks. Read more
Here’s what caught our eyes today: