WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s coming trip to Israel will focus as much on looking to restart a frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as on any other issue.
Though Obama once considered peace between the Israelis and Palestinians a priority, little was accomplished in his first term. Peace talks stalled in 2010. And analysts say there are few expectations that Obama will deliver a new plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has bedeviled U.S. presidents for decades, when he arrives in Jerusalem, reportedly on March 20.
Instead, Obama’s first visit as president most likely is aimed at establishing trust with Netanyahu and an Israeli public that’s viewed Obama warily, and at a moment when talks with Iran over its nuclear program are entering a tenuous stage and fear is rising that violence in Syria might further destabilize the region.
“What they’re looking for is a sense of ‘He gets it. He understands the Israeli security position,’ ” said Jonathan Rynhold, an Israel studies expert from Bar-Ilan University in Israel who’s teaching at George Washington University. “The more that Israel feels that America is behind them on that, the more support from the public there is, and it makes it easier for the prime minister to make concessions on the peace process.”
The trip comes as both leaders start new terms. Netanyahu is still trying to put together a coalition government, but the White House brushed aside questions of delaying the visit in response and said it was on course with planning it.
The visit to one of the closest U.S. allies offers a chance for Obama to improve U.S.-Israeli ties, as well as counter domestic critics. Republicans have long criticized the president for not visiting Israel in his first term and have underscored his strained relations with Netanyahu. The prime minister made no secret before the U.S. election that he’d prefer to deal with a President Mitt Romney, a longtime friend.
“If anything, they’re trying to salvage the hope of a peace process,” said Michael Singh, a former director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush who’s now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research center. “One of the things that caused the process to regress has been the disconnect between the U.S. and Israel, and we’re still sort of living with the lingering effects.”
Netanyahu took pains this week to address the optics of the relationship, telling the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that Obama’s visit gives him the opportunity to extend “appreciation for what he has done for Israel.”
Divisions remain between the two, sharpened since Obama’s tough early stance in his first term against Israel’s building of Jewish settlements in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank, which the president will visit after meeting with Netanyahu. Some analysts expect Obama to privately press Netanyahu on concessions to the Palestinians and for patience with talks with Iran.
Netanyahu has pressed the president for a more muscular response in Iran and Syria. Obama won’t rule out military action to prevent Iran from securing a nuclear weapon but he thinks there’s still time for economic sanctions and diplomacy to convince Tehran to back down.
“Words alone will not stop Iran,” Netanyahu said, addressing the AIPAC conference via satellite. “Sanctions alone will not stop Iran. Sanctions must be coupled with a clear and credible military threat if diplomacy and sanctions fail.”
“Netanyahu is trying to trap him into a commitment to intervene on Netanyahu’s terms, and the president of the United States doesn’t want to be told by the prime minister when to intervene,” said Daniel Serwer, senior research professor of conflict management at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and former director of the Iraq Study Group, convened by Congress to examine the country’s postwar needs.
Obama told nearly two dozen Jewish American leaders Thursday that he won’t be going to Israel with a “grand peace plan,” though he didn’t rule out a new effort at some point.
He made it clear that he doesn’t believe in “extra chest beating” when it comes to Iran and he’s convinced there’s still time for diplomacy, Israeli news outlets reported on the White House meeting.
The president told the group that the trip “is not dedicated to resolving a specific policy issue, but is rather an opportunity to consult with the Israeli government about a broad range of issues,” including Iran, Syria and peace with the Palestinians, a White House official said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity as a matter of administration policy. Obama also underscored that the trip is an opportunity for him to speak directly to Israelis, the official said.
Regarding Syria, the U.S. has warned President Bashar Assad that it views the use of chemical weapons against the rebels who are trying to overthrow him as a “red line” for possible military intervention. The administration has declined to send weapons or any lethal aid to the rebels, instead delivering food and medicine.
Israel’s threshold for taking action – as illustrated earlier this year with an airstrike on Syria – appears to be lower, and aimed at a wider variety of possible threats.
Syria is awash in arms, and Netanyahu warned that its stash of chemical and anti-aircraft weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and al Qaida as the regime collapses.
The emphasis on Iran and Syria reflects Netanyahu’s contention that Israel can’t pursue peace talks with the Palestinians without addressing the risks posed by its neighbors. Obama is expected to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank, but analysts note that Palestinians are deflated by the prospect of peace negotiations being downplayed.
Palestinian “leadership has higher expectations. They really have no choice but to cling to some hope Obama can deliver. But on the street I don’t think anyone expects anything,” said Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to Palestinian peace negotiators who’s a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington. “As long as there isn’t an open front in the Arab-Israeli conflict, it just seems like it’s something that can wait. The moment isn’t now.”