There is some debate as to what the announcement that President Obama will be visiting Israel in a few weeks portends. Those on the left, both here and in Israel, ardently hope it is intended to signal a new U.S. push to revive the Middle East peace process during which the president will personally twist the arms of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. However, the lack of any real preparation for such talks, or signs that there is a ghost of a chance that they might succeed, make such expectations seem highly unrealistic.
There is little doubt that the peace process will be on the agenda when Obama goes to Israel. But the notion that the president will be seeking to implement a set plan to force concessions on the Jewish state or that it, as one hysterical left-wing columnist put it in Haaretz, means the “centrality” of the conflict with the Palestinians will be reaffirmed is pure fantasy. It is far more likely that the main point of it will be reaffirming the U.S.-Israel alliance at a time when conflict with Iran, instability in Egypt and civil war in Syria makes coordination between the two governments more essential than ever. That explanation doesn’t speak to the hopes of leftists who want Obama to hammer Israel or the fears of friends of the Jewish state who believe he plans to use his second term to bring it to its knees. But given the timing of the trip, this more humdrum explanation makes a lot more sense.
Those who either hope or fear Obama intends to get tough with Israel have good reason to think the way they do. The president’s open hostility toward the Netanyahu government has been a keynote of American foreign policy since he took office in 2009. It is no secret that many in the White House and the State Department would like to take another futile crack at reviving talks with the Palestinians. Even more to the point, the president must be itching to end the Jewish charm offensive he had been forced to adopt during his re-election campaign and get back to his previous pattern of ambush and attack when it comes to Israel.
But the idea that the president would parachute into the Middle East and attempt to jump-start a peace process that has been stalled for years by himself without any indication that genuine progress is even a remote possibility gives Obama less credit than he deserves. The president may intensely dislike Netanyahu, but he has no desire to preside over a fiasco or to be seen as a failure so early in his second term.
Lip service will no doubt be paid to the peace process and grand words will be uttered about the need to end the conflict during the course of the visit. There will even be some who will give the president credit for pushing Netanyahu to call for a new round of talks even though the prime minister has been regularly issuing that appeal for years to no effect. But after more than four years in office, even the Obama administration has caught on to the fact that Abbas is more afraid of a return to the negotiating table than he is of his Hamas rivals. The chances that the Palestinian Authority will sign any document that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, or end the conflict for all time, are virtually nonexistent.
President Obama may hope to push Netanyahu to make more gestures to the Palestinians, but there are other and, frankly, more important things for them to discuss than the sensibilities of the corrupt gang that presides over the PA in Ramallah.
Both the U.S. and the Israeli governments are closely monitoring the chaos in Syria as well as the situation in Egypt where the installation of a Muslim Brotherhood government has complicated the strategic equation in the region. And looming over everything is the desire of the United States that Israel not act on its own to forestall the nuclear threat from Iran. No matter how much of the atmospherics of the trip center on the peace process, it is those topics that are really at the top of the agenda.
To assert that the topic of talks with the Palestinians is not the most important subject of discussion between the two countries is not to argue that Obama and Netanyahu will agree on most things. They don’t like each other and don’t share the same frame of reference about the imperative to convey the message to the Arab and Muslim world that there is no daylight between their governments’ positions on major issues.
But there is no reason to believe this visit will mark a turning point in the alliance or that it will be primarily employed by the U.S. to exert pressure on Israel. As the recent Israeli strikes on Syrian targets show, the U.S. still needs the Jewish state to do its dirty work in the region. The close security cooperation between the two nations transcends Obama’s biases and that means the danger from Iran and its terrorist auxiliaries are bound to take precedence over the Palestinian issue. Not even the enthusiasm of new Secretary of State John Kerry for new negotiations can change that reality.
President Obama could have done himself some political good had he taken this trip last year, but he may not have wanted to do what he considered a favor to Netanyahu when the latter was poised to face his own electorate. Now that Netanyahu has been re-elected, albeit not by the large margin he had hoped for, there is no reason to put off a routine visit anymore. More to the point, the start of new terms in office for both men is a good a time for a “reset” of relations at a moment when further conflict between the two could complicate U.S. strategy for dealing with problems in the region.
Obama’s critics made more of his stubborn refusal to visit Israel during his first term than it probably merited. Now that he’s finally given in, they shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that it means more than it does. That conclusion won’t please some of the president’s liberal supporters with an axe to grind against Israel. Nor will it calm the anxieties of the pro-Israel community. But it is probably the most sensible explanation of the president’s decision.