As you’ve probably heard, President Obama will visit Israel next month, his first time as president. And for those people still upset with him for not visiting during his first term, here’s the good news: Obama’s visit is still much earlier in his second term than when George W. Bush visited. So there’s no reason to be upset — not about the timing of the visit. As for the reasons and the implications of this impending visit — this is no big surprise — here’s a list of things to be considered:
Remember Benjamin Netanyahu’s U.N. speech last September? Remember his “red line”? Summer is coming fast, and a presidential visit in early spring is one good way of attempting to give the United States and its allies more legroom to maneuver. Obama wants to do more talking with Iran and needs Israel not to be too fidgety with its timetables. His presence is a way of reassuring Israelis that the United States is on their side and that they should not rush to action. Since the public isn’t eager to see action — Obama has a chance of succeeding with it. As for the prime minister, that’s another story. Netanyahu truly believes that he was planted in his office to do this one big thing of saving Israel from the peril of a nuclear Iran. If there’s one issue on which Netanyahu might decide to spite public opinion — Iran would be it.
One hopes that Obama got some assurances from both Israelis and Palestinians that his visit will not go to waste. The time for renewal of the peace process — that is, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — is long overdue. If Obama can’t make it happen, his visit could be in danger of being labeled a failure. (On the other hand, expecting him to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to get the two sides much closer to resolving it would also be a huge mistake — he can’t do it).
Don’t underestimate the timing of the announcement. Potential coalition members now have a clearer choice: If they want to see Obama, they’d better hurry. If they want to keep claiming that Netanyahu is ruining Israel’s relations with the United States — their case just became less convincing.
Obama’s visit would make Netanyahu seem stronger, at least for a while (until the visit, and possibly after it if the visit is successful). Obama is experienced enough to understand this and surely made Netanyahu pay some price for it. Where can Israel compromise? Iran is tough, but with his new coalition Netanyahu has more flexibility on the Palestinian front (he doesn’t yet have a coalition — but his potential coalitions give him this flexibility).
As I argued last week, the situation in Syria is bringing the Israeli and the U.S. governments closer together. It will give Obama and Netanyahu one safer issue on which to agree.
If Obama is going to Israel in late March, this means that the hope for him to come here for Shimon Peres’ Presidential Conference is pretty much dead. It also makes the annual AIPAC conference in early March a little less consequential. Netanyahu will not travel to Washington if Obama is coming to Jerusalem (or so I’d assume); Obama might not want to go to AIPAC and upstage his own visit just two weeks before it happens. For the past week I’ve been thinking that the smartest move for the administration would be to send Chuck Hagel to the AIPAC conference — if he is confirmed as secretary of defense. This would make an interesting speech, and would present AIPAC attendees with an interesting test of restraint.
Can Obama move the needle of suspicion downward with this visit? The American president is perceived by many Israelis as pro-Palestinian or neutral. I’m not sure whether Obama cares much about being popular among Israelis, but I’m sure that some advisers have told him that being more popular would also make him more effective as he battles with Netanyahu over policy. The question for me is this: Can Obama still charm Israelis — or maybe it’s too late for him to change an already firm Israeli suspicion of him? (My answer: He can probably change Israeli minds, but not by making speeches — they’d have to see action to be convinced).
One would hope Obama is well aware that Israelis are too busy with conscripting the ultra-Orthodox at the moment to be concerned with issues such as regional peace and the occupation. Seriously: Much like the United States, Israel is preoccupied with domestic concerns. Assuming coalition talks are completed by the time Obama comes, the new government will be busy with drafting a budget and planning for cuts in government spending and raising taxes. Obama’s visit will be a distraction — not an event that’s going to top the agenda for very long.
Four years ago, I wrote an article for The New Republic in which, somewhat nastily, I advised Obama not to come to Israel:
“[W]ords alone will not make Israelis trust Obama. Israelis do not suffer from lack of understanding of the issues; they suffer from peace-fatigue. They look at “peace processes” with suspicion, based on experience and events. They are scarred enough to know what has [worked] and what has not, and they are tired of the good intentions of enthusiastic novices, believing that with their youth and their smarts they’ll be able to come up with some magic trick that can somehow round a square. What Obama needs is a convincing plan that makes sense. It does not look like he has one.”
Now I think it’s good time for him to come. Why?
• Because it is clearly not about domestic politics — elections are over in both countries.
• Because expectations have been lowered enough for all parties involved to understand that peace isn’t coming “within a year or two.” No one expects a “magic trick” anymore.
• Because Obama is no longer an “enthusiastic novice” — he is a second-term president.
• Because Netanyahu needs an opportunity to be a gracious host to Obama. And it will save Obama at least one Netanyahu visit to Washington, where he keeps getting on the president’s nerves.
• Because the Middle East is in turmoil and this really isn’t the right time for these two leaders to keep bickering about one another.
• Because Obama has to be here at least once, so why not get it over with.
One question though: will he stay for the Seder?
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