During his first administration, President Obama made high-profile visits to places like Cairo and Riyadh. Despite urging by allies and critics, he did not visit Israel.
In an October 2012 NBC interview, Obama explained why. “I visited Israel just a number of months before I was president,” he said. “Given how important I think the situation in the Middle East is, and our partnership with Israel, which is stronger than it’s ever been — when I go to Israel, I want to make sure that we’re actually moving something forward.”
According to Yediot Ahronot, presidential associates said in the past year that Obama would not visit Israel without being able to advance the peace process, and so he chose not to visit the country just in order to satisfy Jewish voters.
So why, on Feb. 5, did the White House announce that Obama would visit Israel this March? Tommy Vietor, spokesperson for the National Security Council, said in an e-mail, “The start of the President’s second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Syria.” Note the absence of reference to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
A more skeptical view is expressed by Ray Hanania, an Arab-American Christian journalist and comedian whose father is from a prominent Jerusalem family.
In a Saudi Gazette column, Hanania discusses individuals (Pamela Geller) and groups (Christian evangelicals) who, in his opinion, promote Islamophobia, and critics who led the backlash against Obama for his Cairo Speech and insist the president is a Muslim.
Hanania raises possibilities about Obama’s motivation for the trip to Israel. “Does it mean Obama is using a meeting with Netanyahu as a pretext so he can openly meet and reinforce the feeble Palestinian National Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas?” he writes. “Maybe to bolster Lapid [whose new party, Yesh Atid, was the surprise winner of the recent Israeli election]? Or, it may mean only that Obama is just a seasoned politician who, in order to move his American domestic policies, needs to brush aside the image that he is ‘anti-Israel.’”
Hanania’s concluding speculation is, “Maybe, the only reason Obama wants to visit Israel is to see the Holy Land sites, pray at the Church of the Nativity, and convince Americans that he really is a ‘Christian’ after all. The ‘Christian thing’ to do would be to stand up for justice and push for Palestinian rights. In that respect, Obama may not be Christian enough.”
On Sunday, the Associated Press reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Obama’s visit will focus on Iran’s nuclear program, the violence in Syria, and the stalled peace process with the Palestinians.
According to Israeli Army Radio, unnamed Israeli officials say the purpose of the spring trip — a time flagged by Netanyahu as significant in the Iranian nuclear program — is to tell him to leave the matter to the United States.
The officials say Obama decided to transmit a direct message to Netanyahu: “Don’t attack Iran, let me handle matters with the Iranians according to my understanding, and if necessary I will take action, we have capabilities that you do not.”
They also say Obama is concerned that Netanyahu will decide to attack Iran when he is backed by a new government and can establish a new security cabinet without Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, two former Likud MKs who reportedly opposed a strike.
Possible, but as Hanania points out, there is a major new factor in Israeli politics, Lapid and Yesh Atid. Obama will not know the nature of the new Israeli government until it is formed.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reports the White House has tried to lower expectations for the trip, saying the president will not come with a new peace initiative, contradicting Obama’s campaign statements that he would only go to Israel to advance the peace process.
Besides meeting with Israeli leaders, Obama is expected to visit Yad Vashem and the Mount Herzl cemetery, and give a speech, either in the Knesset or at a university. He will most likely spend a few hours in the West Bank.
That’s the program. As for the agenda, that is anybody’s guess.
There seems to be a consensus that Obama is in legacy building mode. The last president to be in legacy mode with Israel as its core was Bill Clinton. That did not end well for anyone.