The expectations for Barack Obama’s first presidential visit to Israel could not be much lower, although it is an exaggeration to say, as former U.S. Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller mordantly observed in Politico, that they are so low that this trip is “doomed to succeed.”
Actually, the time is ideal, to use the current diplomatic term, to “reset” U.S.-Israeli relations, troubled by what Israelis saw as Obama’s indifference to the two nations’ historic ties and what the Obama administration saw as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu coming unacceptably close to meddling in U.S. presidential politics.
Obama solidly won re-election in November; Netanyahu also was re-elected, but with a weaker majority, in January. Obama has only just got his national-security team in place, and Netanyahu’s government is being sworn in only 48 hours before the American president’s arrival.
On the recurring issue of a permanent peace settlement with the Palestinians, Netanyahu told his new government: “We extend our hand in peace to the Palestinians. Israel has proven time and time again it is ready for concessions in exchange for real peace, and the situation today is no different.”
There may be a role for Obama in Israeli-Palestinian talks, but that time is not now. The Israeli premier offered no specifics. His government continues with construction of Jewish housing on land the Palestinians claim, and the Palestinians say they will not participate in any talks until the construction stops.
New Secretary of State John Kerry will have a go at ending that impasse in a few weeks, but the outlook is not good. Obama will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the West Bank, but with the lack of any movement on the Israeli side and the Palestinians’ anger at the U.S. blocking their attempt to gain recognition as an independent state through the United Nations, the Abbas-Obama meeting is likely to be little more than a courtesy call.
What Obama’s visit lacks in substance, it makes up for in symbolism: a visit to the grave of Theodor Herzl, the revered architect of Zionism; and inspection of the Dead Sea Scrolls, underscoring Israel’s historic claim to its land.
Offstage, there is certain to be serious discussion about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the security implications of a possible disintegration of neighboring Syria.
If Obama improves his standings with the Israelis, patches things up with Netanyahu and quiets his domestic critics — who charge that his dedication to Israel’s security is only halfhearted — he can call the trip a success. The raised expectations can come later.
Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.