President Obama’s to-do list for his Middle East trip

March 18, 2013

THOSE WHO dismiss President Obama’s visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan this week as a substance-less Baedeker tour badly misread the state of U.S.-Israeli relations and the troubles they could create for the president in the next couple of years. Israel and the United States have made different judgments about how soon and under what circumstances military action should be taken against Iran’s nuclear program; they also may differ on what must be done to keep Syria’s advanced missiles and chemical and biological weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists or of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.

Mr. Obama’s interest lies in persuading Israel not to launch unilateral operations but rather to trust that the United States will intervene when and if that is needed. But trust — as opposed, say, to a road map for a two-state solution — is what is most missing from the current relationship. Mr. Obama has spent more time with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than with any other world leader, but their relations have been rancorous. His standing with Israelis is little better: In a recent poll by the newspaper Maariv, 68 percent had an unfavorable view of the president.

As White House officials readily acknowledge, Mr. Obama’s visit beginning Wednesday is primarily aimed at allowing him to build bridges both to Israelis and to Mr. Netanyahu, who just formed a new government that will likely keep him in office for several more years. The president’s schedule is loaded with symbolic affirmations of his commitment to Israel’s security, such as a U.S.-funded Iron Dome anti-missile battery that will await him at the airport, and with correctives to mistakes Mr. Obama made in his first term. In his 2009 Cairo speech, the president inadvertently implied that Israel’s existence was justified by the Holocaust; on this visit he will visit an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls as a way of affirming the historical Jewish claim to the land.

Probably Mr. Obama won’t fully patch his difference with Mr. Netanyahu on red lines for Iran. While Mr. Obama has said he won’t allow Tehran to produce a bomb, the Israeli leader has vowed to prevent it from acquiring the capacity to do so, including a sufficient amount of medium-enriched uranium. But if Obama is seen by Israelis as determined to act if needed, Mr. Netanyahu could be deterred by his own public opinion from unilateral steps. The two leaders have a better chance of reaching a consensus on Syria — provided that Mr. Obama is willing to commit his administration to a more aggressive policy against the regime of Bashar al-Assad than it has pursued thus far.

This is not to say that Mr. Obama should ignore Israeli-Palestinian peace, the preoccupation of his first term. Palestinian leaders and King Abdullah of Jordan, whom he will meet Friday, will surely press him to renew his efforts. Though prospects for a breakthrough remain dim, U.S. support for incremental steps, including unilateral actions by both sides to prepare for Palestinian statehood, remains important. There, too, it will matter whether Mr. Obama can connect with average Israelis and Palestinians — and reset his personal relations with their leaders.

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