Why exactly is President Obama going to Israel? A variety of theories have been advanced as to why he is making the trip now and what might be accomplished.
Some have suggested that Obama needs to reassure Israel, to hold their hands and tell them that the US-Israeli relationship is special. This suggests that Obama cares about Israeli feelings, at least in the sense that positive sentiments advance policy goals, and that Israelis might be thus comforted by his presence. But the record of bad relations between Obama and Netanyahu is too long, and the fact that Obama is on record saying that Israelis don’t know what is best for them, whereas he does, has mitigated whatever good vibrations he might spread now.
Others have suggested that Obama is going to take advantage of the unique circumstances of weakness in the Arab world in order to force progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations. But the Palestinian Authority is again engaged in fruitless reconciliation talks with Hamas and has accused Israel of sabotaging those talks with back channel contacts with Hamas. It has also orchestrated violent protests against Israel in advance of Obama’s trip to create a price tag for its cooperation. The idea that Obama holds a strong hand falls short.
Still others believe the visit is a kind of reset, an opportunity to rebuild relations badly damaged by the misstep of forcing Israel to adopt a construction freeze that was neither asked for nor reciprocated by Palestinians, as a condition for resuming negotiations. Given the appointment of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, despite revelations regarding his peculiarly obsessive hostility towards Israel and near indifference towards other issues, this rings particularly hollow.
On the whole, the timing of the visit is so inauspicious as to arouse suspicion that a change of American policy is indeed in the making. Consider the Middle East scene today. The Egyptian military is making veiled threats against the American-supported Muslim Brotherhood Morsi government. The civil war in Syria is spreading into Lebanon. The threat of an Islamist takeover in Jordan has never been greater. And Iran, with the help of North Korea, inches ever closer to a nuclear weapon.
…But at another level the visit is dangerous. For one thing it will inevitably expose just how out of sync the US is with Israel as well as the region. The bad chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu will produce awkward body language when they meet. American spokesmen will visibly dance around unwanted questions regarding Hamas and Hezbollah, or Muslim antisemitism. The famously aggressive Israeli press will analyze Obama’s every move and every word, as will the Palestinian press. And despite carefully stage-managed meetings with selected groups, groups of Israelis and Palestinians are likely to loudly protest, causing embarrassment all around.
But the real impact of the Obama visit to Israel will not be in Israel but rather in Arab and Muslim countries. After all, it is in those countries that Obama has arguably (and if popularity polls are to be believed, unsuccessfully) invested the most political capital, and it is there that his trip to Israel will create the most disappointment and resentment. The ‘Arab Street’ will want to see overt confrontation between Israel and the US and will be disappointed when it doesn’t appear. More nuanced observers in those societies will assume other forms of American pressure on Israel, because they desire it, and then will be disappointed when evidence does not quickly appear. And virtually all local observers, especially in government ministries and official media, will obsess over the visit as a welcome respite from the situations in Syria and Egypt. The near tragic element of Obama’s visit and its timing then is that it plays directly into the region’s traditional use of Israel as a weapon of mass distraction.
Obama’s visit, by virtue of being routine and ill-timed has the potential to feed the region’s worst instincts. Disappointment with Obama will quickly turn to the default setting of blaming Israel. Is that Obama’s true goal, a back handed form of incitement? Probably not. Nothing in the Obama’ administration’s international dealings suggests this level of sophistication; its manufacture of resentment is generally reserved only for the Republican Party. But that will be one of its effects and it will, in all probability, set back the cause of peace, and that of addressing the region’s other issues.
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