The White House announced yesterday that Barack Obama will visit Israel in March, his first visit there as president. The decision reportedly follows a January 28 telephone conversation between the president, just starting his second term, and newly reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The visit is a welcome opportunity to reset the U.S.-Israel relationship for the next four years. It is significant that the visit was agreed to and announced even before Prime Minister Netanyahu had an opportunity to put together a new government and establish a new set of priorities and policies for the nineteenth Knesset. It suggests that the White House recognizes that with many Middle East policy challenges ahead on a vast array of regional issues—Iran, Syria, advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace—it is necessary to strengthen a core prerequisite—mutual trust—before the more intensive policy debate can proceed.
To be sure, it is imperative that the United States and Israel, as allies, define their shared objectives together. But Obama’s upcoming visit needs to be less policy and more fundamental—a reaffirmation of the United States’ core connection to Israel, its safety, and desire to help a secure Israel realize its long-term dream of a peace with its neighbors that anchors the country’s long-term security and future in the region.
The president will also visit Ramallah where he can reassure disenchanted Palestinians that the United States genuinely wants Palestine to emerge soon as an independent and democratic state living side by side with Israel in peace and security. It is an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate that support for Israel and support for Palestine is not a zero-sum game. To the contrary, it must be win-win. Only a superpower that embraces both sides—and occasionally employs tough love in the advancement of larger shared objectives—can help the two sides achieve that which they cannot do alone. But this visit to both sides must be about the love.
Obama’s visit to Israel provides the president an opportunity not only to demonstrate that he wishes to establish a new and invigorated relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, but to establish a relationship with an even more important partner: the Israeli and Palestinian people. Both sides suffer from a deep and well-earned pessimism about the possibilities about peace with the other.
If indeed the president still believes that peace is both possible and necessary, this is a golden opportunity for him to make the case directly to these two war-weary populations. If comprehensive peace is no longer his immediate objective, given the Middle East’s challenges and upheaval, then it is still critical that the president offers an understanding of the regional dynamics and a commitment to stay engaged with his friends as they struggle in the face of a worrisome future. In short, the president must demonstrate that he gets it from the perspective of the people on the ground.
Just as some criticize the president for not visiting Israel during his first term, some will criticize Obama for going to Israel too early into his second term, before he has a clear set of policy choices he wishes Israelis, Palestinians, and others in the region to make. But this visit will be about something more basic: affirming genuine friendship, and establishing greater trust and a human connection. In doing so, he will demonstrate his commitment to remain engaged in the Middle East, not pivot away at the expense of a region where there is no such thing as benign neglect.