The White House's announcement today that president Obama intends to visit Israel in March was not truly a surprise, although the timing of the announcement and the projected date for the visit might have been. As reported, the President and Bibi discussed this apparently two weeks ago and it already had been widely speculated that an Obama visit would happy soon in Obama’s second term; perhaps just not so soon. There are a number of curious aspects which this announcement opens up, but the trip is not occurring in a total vacuum for both the U.S. as well as Israel.
As far as the date and timing is concerned, at the moment Israel does not have a new Government in place. Legally, the old Government functions until such time that a new coalition is sworn in. Assuming there will be a Government in place in six weeks–not totally guaranteed in Israeli politics–a presidential visit could proceed. If not, it could be postponed.
It is worth seriously considering, however, that the President may indeed be stepping into Israeli politics just as the potential coalition members are jockeying with the Prime Minister for portfolios and negotiating policy positions. Given the President’s known positions on a two state solution, settlements, and direct negotiations, one should assume that the White House was signaling Netanyahu that to make the trip worthwhile, the new coalition ought to be more sympathetic to taking positive steps on the peace process, than was the outgoing one. Netanyahu understands that he will make the President look foolish if he presents a Government which directly challenges the President’s thinking. (Similarly, Abbas will need to consider his own willingness to present a face to the President of a leader ready to proceed with negotiations, without Hamas’ participation.)
At the present time in the Middle East there is no other venue where President Obama can safely and productively go except for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, other than Israel and Jordan. It is a sad statement that just over two years after the Arab Spring the volatility in the region is remains so pervasive. While renewing Israeli-Palestinians peace talks was a direction that the President and Secretary Kerry wanted to pursue, today it is the only possible initiative in which the U.S. can engage in the region. Both Kerry and the President remember, however, that the enthusiasm that the new Obama Administration placed on reviving the peace negotiations when Obama came into office in 2009, went for naught.
Finally for the President, there are two major political reasons for this visit. This trip will placate–at least to some extent– Jewish critics in the U.S. as well as those in Israel who have persisted in their outspoken dislike and distrust of Obama's commitment to Israel's safety and security–especially if or when a confrontation with Iran is forthcoming. For many, except for the most cynical, this much President Obama will accomplish once he actually steps on Israeli soil.