WASHINGTON (JTA) – Is President Obama’s plan to visit Israel a sign that he’s ready to take another shot at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking?
The White House announced Tuesday that Obama would visit Israel in the spring, his first trip there as president. He did visit in 2008, when he was a candidate for the Oval Office. This trip also will include meetings with Palestinian Authority leaders and a trip to Jordan, the White House said.
Obama spoke of the visit in a conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Jan. 28. The White House did not announce dates.
The announcement appears to be a signal that the president is serious about peacemaking, said David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which has close ties with the Obama and Netanyahu governments.
“Part of the problem is that on all sides, there’s disbelief that peace is possible,” Makovsky said. “He wants to engage both societies about why you can’t give up. He wants to engage on the gut level with Arabs and Israelis in a way he hasn’t until now.”
In a region where optics are important, Obama’s failure to visit during his first term as president was cast by his opponents as a sign that Israel was not a high priority for him. It did not help Obama’s popularity in Israel when he omitted the Jewish state from a June 2009 visit to the Middle East that included a major speech in Cairo and a stop in Saudi Arabia.
As much as anything else, the spring trip may be about reaching out to Israelis.
“I’m excited that President Obama is coming this spring to reaffirm the deep ties between Israel and the United States,” Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, said in a message in Hebrew on Twitter.
Netanyahu may have his own reasons for welcoming such a visit now. For one, a U.S. president on Israeli soil sends an unmistakable message to Israel’s enemies that America stands with Israel.
It also helps Netanyahu politically. Netanyahu emerged weakened from Israel’s Jan. 22 elections, and aides have told the Israeli media that they believe voters stayed away from the prime minister over concerns about his rapport with Obama.
The two leaders have had something of a fraught relationship. There have been philosophical differences about Israel’s settlement enterprise and the Palestinians, disagreements about the red line for Iran’s nuclear program and perceived snubs on both sides.
During a March 2010 White House meeting, Netanyahu was denied a photo opportunity with the president and Obama interrupted their meeting to eat dinner. Last year, Netanyahu gave an enthusiastic reception to Obama rival Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign.
But the recent elections in both the United States and Israel could mark a turning point.
In recent days, Netanyahu has indicated that he wants to establish a coalition government that tends more to the center than his last government. He also has identified diplomacy with the Palestinians as one of his top priorities.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Obama’s choice for secretary of state, John Kerry, said in his Senate confirmation hearing that preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace would be his twin priorities in the job. Kerry has since announced his own plans to visit Israel next month, and among his first calls in his new job were conversations with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
"It’s a new beginning: Obama can have a serious discussion with the Israeli prime minister at a time he’s heading a new government," said Dennis Ross, a counsel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was Obama’s top Middle East adviser until a year ago.
"The president is interested in connecting with the Israeli public. It allows him to show he cares about the peace issues, but allows him to do so while discussing all the issues, including Iran, Syria and Egypt."
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. negotiator who now is vice president of the Wilson International Center for Scholars, says both Obama and Netanyahu are being driven to a rapprochement by exigency: Netanyahu by his weakened political position and Obama by preserving his legacy.
"One guy is caught in circumstances which require improvement, and the other guy knows if he wants to get anywhere he’s going to have to figure out if he can work with Bibi," Miller said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Debra DeLee, the president of Americans for Peace Now, said in a statement that Obama’s visit will give him an “opportunity to directly address the people of Israel and lay out a compassionate, pragmatic vision for a future Israel that enjoys security and peace, and that it is a respected member of the community of nations.”
But Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, said if Obama is going simply to advance a peace process that many Israelis and U.S. lawmakers believe is stuck because of Arab intransigence, he’s running a fool’s errand. It would be more useful, she said, for him to use his Israel trip to discuss strategies at a time of Middle Eastern turmoil.
“If he’s president of the United States, he’s going to talk about Iran and Hezbollah and Syria,” Pletka said. “If he’s the president of Barack Obama’s dream house, he’ll talk about the peace process.”