The announcement that President Obama will visit Israel in the spring came as a total surprise. Not that a visit of the leader of the greatest nation on earth (still) and the closest ally of Israel should be unwelcomed, but the circumstances seem a bit odd.
First of all, Prime Minister Netanyahu is in the middle of his attempts to form a new coalition government. Being significantly weakened in the last elections, he is now more dependent on partners who might force him to adopt policies not of his liking. If he follows his heart, Netanyahu will pick Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), a hawkish party, as his main partner. This, however, will signal a continuation of settlements and more antagonism with the United States.
If, on the other hand, Netanyahu leans on Yesh Atid (There is a Future), a new, centrist party led by ex-journalist Yair Lapid, and augments it with Zipi Livni’s party, which is for a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians, then he will send a message to Washington that he is ready to make good on his promise to agree to a two-state solution. This, however, will alienate many of his own hardline Likud voters.
Suddenly, Netanyahu is faced with the Obama visit. It is hard not to see it as an American meddling in Israeli politics, trying to influence which kind of coalition Netanyahu should be forming. As if President Obama is saying to his Israeli counterpart: You interfered in my elections, hoping that Mitt Romney got elected, so now I’ll interfere with your business, and will coerce you to form a government to my taste.
One must assume that an American president who decides to visit Israel for the first time has more serious reasons and objectives than just interfering in internal Israeli politics. The question is what these reasons are and what their objectives might be.
Restarting the failed peace process is the obvious answer that immediately comes to mind. Except that an American president traditionally steps in to conclude a process only after the two parties have reached a basic agreement. This is what President Carter did in Camp David in 1978: Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had agreed in principle to trade Sinai for peace. Only then did President Carter use his power to convince — indeed, sometimes to coerce — the two parties to agree on the details. President Clinton in 1993 didn’t even do that: All he offered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat was a photo opportunity on the South Lawn of the White House. All the rest had been agreed upon before in Oslo, between the two parties alone.
Given the present poor state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, it seems like an extraordinary move by President Obama to come to Israel, if his idea is to jump-start the peace process. Not only does he come at the beginning of the process rather than at its end, but one wonders if the parties involved actually give him credit for being an honest broker. Israelis have a grudge against him for forcing them to freeze the settlements as a precondition for talks with the Palestinians, while the Palestinians never showed up at the negotiating table. Palestinians, on the other hand, hold against him the fact that the United States opposed the motion to recognize a Palestinian State at the United Nations.
Both sides may also question Obama’s competence in dealing with the Middle East. Israelis remember his 2009 speech in Cairo University, where he spoke about “a new beginning” in relations between America and the Muslim world, and wonder, in hindsight, how realistic those words were, considering the situation in the Middle East today. Arabs, for their part, may also ponder Obama’s seriousness, in light of America’s blatant inaction vis-à-vis the tragedy in Syria.
Why then, against all odds and contrary to conventional wisdom, is Obama nevertheless coming to Israel?
I think that the answer lies in the words he spoke at the White House Rose Garden on Oct. 9, 2009, when he learned that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. He said he was “surprised” by the honor, but did not feel worthy of the company this placed him in. Then he added: “I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments but rather an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.”
That, I believe, is the key to Obama’s decision to come to Israel now, knowing perfectly well that he might “fail” by not achieving a breakthrough in the peace process. Being an idealist, he will come to Israel just to maintain hope in the hearts of Israelis and Palestinians.
With all the mixed feelings about the presidential visit, there is something all of us Jerusalemites agree on, whether we are Arabs or Jews: Traffic in Jerusalem during the visit will be a nightmare. Speaking for myself, though, this is a sacrifice I’m willing to make, a little personal thank you to President Obama for his noble gesture.
(Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem.)