Obama's Israel Visit May Mark Rebirth of 'Centrality' of the Palestinian Conflict

In the short term, the early visit serves Netanyahu’s political purposes. It is also a sign of darkening Middle Eastern skies.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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As George Mallory famously said about Mount Everest, President Obama is going to visit Israel, first and foremost, “because it’s there.” After the heaps of criticism and mounds of condemnation hurled at him for avoiding Israel after his Cairo speech and throughout his first term, there was no way that Obama was going to let Air Force 1 enter Middle East air space without checking the “Israel visit” box first.

The timing, on the other hand, took many Washington insiders by surprise. It’s easy to see how the early visit serves Benjamin Netanyahu’s political purposes: He can dangle the prospect of an impending peace process to entice parties to his left to join his coalition, while warning of looming American pressure in order to cajole those on his right. This still doesn’t explain the urgency for Obama, who had been widely expected to maintain “a low profile” in terms of his public presidential involvement with Israel and the Palestinians.

One of the reasons for the change, according to former U.S. ambassador and current Princeton professor Dan Kurtzer, is the very appointment of Secretary of State John Kerry. The Middle East peace process is “a major part” of Kerry’s agenda, says Kurtzer; Obama’s trip to Israel and the West Bank is aimed at stamping Kerry’s efforts with a presidential seal of approval and removing any doubts about the support he enjoys from the White House.

Others ascribe the surprise timing of the visit to the darkening skies of the Middle East: Egypt is teetering, Syria is seething and the Iranian nuclear standoff is approaching crunch time. In fact, despite the short hiatus, the situation could deteriorate dramatically before Obama's reported March landing at Ben Gurion Airport, in any or all of these trouble spots. Under these precarious circumstances, the coordination and understanding between Obama and Netanyahu assume truly strategic importance.

But it is equally true that these are also the times that the long held view that the Israeli-Palestinian track can become an instrument for calming the area, soothing antagonism towards the U.S and even assisting in the formation of a U.S.-led anti-Iranian coalition is bound to become doubly attractive.

This view, of the centrality and regional importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - shunned by the current Israeli government and perhaps by most Israelis - is one more common denominator of the “Quartet” that will be running America’s national security policy in the next four years: Obama, Vice President Biden, Kerry and the presumptive Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (whose prospects for Senate confirmation were probably boosted by the news of Obama’s impending visit, at least among concerned supporters of Israel).

This is also a critical part of the weltanschaung of most European leaders, including British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who has already urged Kerry to plunge head first into Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Given Kerry’s natural propensities, and Europe’s critical role in all three Middle East hot spots, it is perhaps no wonder that the renewal of talks between Israel and the Palestinians has been taken off the back burner, at the very least. Though no one should assume any dramatic breakthroughs, given the absolute paralysis of recent years, the very renewal of the “peace process” will be viewed as a major achievement.

It goes without saying that the visit will also be critical in determining the atmospherics of Israel-U.S. relations, in general, and of the hitherto problematic ties between Netanyahu and Obama, in particular. The chemistry between the two leaders will be carefully scrutinized, as will the decibels of the right-wing demonstrators who will inevitably be shouting “Obama Go Home” in front of his hotel. The potential for ill-advised provocations that will turn into national embarrassments and be broadcast on American TV is almost infinite.

The irony, of course, is that by coming to Israel so early in his second term, Obama is, in fact, fulfilling one of Mitt Romney main campaign promises, to make Israel the first place he visits as president. Standing next to Obama in the harsh spotlight of the international media, Netanyahu will have ample time to consider the gap between what is, and what might have been.

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U.S. President Barack Obama boarding Air Force 1. Credit: AP