The passing of Nelson Mandela, and the continued life of US President Barack Obama’s initiatives vis-a-vis Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks dominate news coverage Sunday morning.
Obama, who spoke Saturday at the Saban Forum in Washington on Israeli-US relations, had a lot to say, and commentators in Sunday’s papers take his cue and run with it.
Most papers lead off with his comments to the effect that Iran will be able to continue enriching uranium under a final deal (Maariv), that there is a 50 percent chance such a deal will be struck (Israel Hayom), and that the night soil is about to hit a rotational device (Yedioth Ahronoth).
Only Haaretz finds more newsworthy his comments on peace talks, namely that any Israeli pullout from the West Bank would not leave it with another rocket-slinging Gaza on its borders, so long as the pullout is done in stages and the correct way. “We know what the outlines of a potential agreement will look like,” Obama is quoted saying.
Nahum Barnea in Yedioth deploys Game of Thronesian clichés in penning a frightening tale of a coming political tempest between the US and Israel over the two issues, the likes of which these parts have not seen for many a winter. “All the signs point to the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration being at the start of a confrontational period. The language is polite, but the decisions each side is presenting are difficult, loaded and come with heavy political prices. The weather in Washington yesterday was gray and cold. According to forecasts, a storm is on the way.”
Maariv lays bare one of the central tenets of that coming fight, the US’s newfound approval for Iran to enrich uranium on its own soil, as Obama mentioned at his speech Saturday. For the paper’s Nadav Eyal, this could very well spell the end of the honeymoon between Washington and Jerusalem. However, he notes that aside from Obama saying publicly for the first time that enriching uranium may stay on the table, the American president also returned to a tried-and-true formula of putting everything else on the table as well: “And if the talks fail? Here Obama returned to a known but important line. All options are on the table, including military. This is a line the Americans tried to avoid using while signing the Geneva accord, in order not to dirty the air with the Iranians. Now this jargon comes back into use. Does the Middle East really think that there is still a credible military threat if the deal falls? It’s very doubtful.”
Israel Hayom’s Boaz Bizmuth, dispatched to the forum, writes a several-hundred word essay on “That time I got to ask Obama a question,” focusing on his own humdinger as to why the US didn’t tell Israel it was in secret talks with Iran. Obama’s answer (or non-answer): “There weren’t a lot of secret negotiations. Essentially what happened — and we were very clear and transparent about this — is that from the time I took office, I said we would reach out to Iran and we would let them know we’re prepared to open up a diplomatic channel. After Rouhani was elected, there was some acceleration leading up to the UN General Assembly. You’ll recall that Rouhani was engaging in what was termed a charm offensive, right, and he was going around talking to folks. And at that point, it made sense for us to see, all right, how serious are you potentially about having these conversations.”
The paper also reports on another speaker at the forum, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who on Friday dismissed Kerry’s claim that the Israelis and Palestinians are closer than ever before, saying that the chances of a deal (in which he is not taking an active role) are zero. But like everybody else, he’s all for keeping the talks going. “I don’t believe it is possible in the next year to achieve [a] comprehensive solution, to achieve some breakthrough, but I think it’s crucial to keep our dialogue, because we live in the same region, we’re neighbors. It’s important at least to think about coexistence,” he said.
The talks may be clinging to life, but the Israeli press, now given the benefit of actually being able to publish appreciations (what’s with all the important people dying late at night? I’m looking at you, ghost of Arik Einstein), reports on Nelson Mandela’s passing Thursday night.
In Haaretz, Benjamin Progrund, a reporter in apartheid South Africa who has since moved to Jerusalem, writes about his personal experiences with Mandela.
“We kept in touch for the 20 years Mandela was on Robben Island security prison. My wife Anne and I got in the habit of sending him a Christmas hamper of tasty foods. After a few years, the authorities said the food would have to be shared among the prisoners. … Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town in 1982, and after several years, I was given permission to visit him – not as a journalist, but as a friend. I had to promise not to write about it. A second visit followed, with Anne, at his insistence. We told him our son, Gideon, was about to celebrate his bar mitzvah. A few days later, a handwritten card from Mandela arrived in the mail to congratulate Gideon. I was amazed. He was a prisoner serving life, with the weight of secret negotiations with the government that were underway, and yet he showed kindness to a youth he had never met.”
In Yedioth, former diplomat Alon Liel writes about his many encounters with Mandela, whom he describes as a man who always looked forward to reconciliation instead of dwelling on the crimes of the past.
“Mandela had four characteristics that mixed and made him into the greatest of all: his optimistic outlook, his warm personality, his total faith in the justness of democracy and his personal asceticism. I suggest for everyone to look deeply at this list in order to understand how much we miss a leader of this sort in the Middle East.”