For many Israelis, Herzl’s grave represents an ancient Jewish claim, rather than one rooted in the Holocaust, to the slice of land that comprises their modern state.
It is an argument that Obama appeared to ignore in the eyes of Israel’s most ardent supporters, who viewed him as focusing too heavily on relations with the Islamic world early in his first term. The result: a deep Israeli mistrust of Obama that severely undermined his early push for a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
As he embarks Tuesday on his first presidential trip to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, Obama will seek to clarify his support for the Jewish state’s theory of its historical roots — addressing one of several subtle, but essential, missteps he is attempting to fix in his second term. The trip is a mission of remedial diplomacy, rather than the kind of specific peace initiative common for previous presidential visits.
Obama will also travel to the West Bank city of Ramallah during his four-day trip for air-clearing meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other leaders, who are deeply disappointed by Obama and his staunch opposition to their diplomatic push for statehood through the United Nations.
“Rather than a preemptive strike, I see this visit as a preemptive kiss,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a pro-Israel advocacy group that favors a two-state solution to the conflict. “It’s a way to say to both sides, ‘I love you, I’m with you, now as we get down to work on this, I don’t want to hear any complaints or excuses that I don’t.’ ”
Israelis, Palestinians and some administration officials say the diplomacy is necessary if Obama hopes to revive his ill-fated effort to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, particularly as the broader Arab world is changing in unpredictable ways through protest, war and elections. In the Middle East, as many U.S. presidents have learned, problems rarely get easier to resolve with time.
Among the complicating factors Obama will encounter will be the uncertainty surrounding a new Israeli government — just formed Saturday — and a divided Palestinian political leadership.
Each are governing societies increasingly divided between nationalist religious movements less inclined to compromise and more-secular parties willing to relinquish some land and historical claims in return for a lasting agreement.
But for Obama, who will be traveling with his new secretary of state, John F. Kerry, the time may be more auspicious. He is feeling little pressure at home about his relationship with Israel, which emerged as a prominent issue during his reelection campaign.