Resurrecting Obama’s Reputation in the Middle East

Witnessing Air Force One touch down at Ben Gurion Airport is a big deal for Israelis. The imperial majesty of that giant powder blue 747, and all the pomp and circumstance associated with it, sends a clear message that Israel’s most important backer is about to step on to the Holy Land and from there to ascend to Jerusalem. And that inevitably generates high expectations that something dramatic is about to happen: a breakthrough negotiated, a peace agreement signed, a beloved leader buried. Indeed, many Israelis and Palestinians are impressed that the president made visiting them his first foreign trip of his second term.

What is noticeable about Barack Obama’s first trip to Israel as president is that the White House has been working overtime to lower those expectations. Even the president himself felt it necessary to explain to American Jewish leaders last week that the trip “is not dedicated to resolving a specific policy issue but is rather an opportunity to consult with the Israeli government about a broad range of issues.” Indeed, how could it be anything other than a broad consultation, since the new government in Israel will barely have been sworn in by the time the president meets with the prime minister and his cabinet.

So why, after four years of not coming to Israel, has the president chosen this moment to visit? Having waited so long, why not wait a little longer and give John Kerry, his new secretary of state, a chance to set things up, perhaps laying the groundwork for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that Obama could then bless?

Unfortunately, the president himself has such low expectations of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders he will be meeting, after they repeatedly disappointed him in his first term, that he no longer believes much can be achieved on the peace front. So why wait? Better to get the visit over and done with, demonstrate he is a lover of Zion, deprive his Republican adversaries of an effective talking point, and move on to greener Asian pastures.

That cynical view of the purposes of the Obama White House overlooks one critical objective that the president can achieve on this visit. He can reintroduce himself to the Israeli public as the American leader who does care deeply about their security and well-being, will be – as he has already been – in the trenches with them when the chips are down, means what he says when he vows that he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, AND will be their reliable partner in the effort to resolve their existential conflict with the Palestinians.

The speech Obama delivers at Binyanei Ha’Uma in Jerusalem next Thursday evening to an audience of young Israelis will be the long-awaited analog to the speech he made to the Arab world in Cairo in June 2009. It will provide him with an opportunity to reintroduce himself to the Israeli people, identify with their hopes and fears, and build a quotient of trust that has been missing in their relationship.

If Obama can achieve that purpose, the trip will have been worth it. For if the Israeli public comes to view Obama as the trusted friend that he in fact is, Prime Minister Netanyahu will have to think long and hard before he decides again to upbraid the president in the Oval Office. It will not be so easy for him to refuse Obama’s requests to restrain settlement activity, take confidence-building steps toward the Palestinians, and pipe down about Iran’s nuclear program. Historically, the Israeli public has punished prime ministers who mishandle Israel’s all-important relationship with a popular U.S. president. It’s precisely because Obama has been so unpopular with the Israeli public that Netanyahu has been able to thwart his purposes. If the resident can change the balance of Israeli public opinion in his favor, he will benefit from a more positive relationship with a more pliant Israeli prime minister.

That in turn will help him with the Palestinians and Arabs. Obama thought he could please them by distancing the United States from Israel. What he didn’t understand is that they gave up believing that will ever happen a long time ago. What they care about is not splitting the United States from Israel but having the president use his influence with Israel. His inability to do that in his first term cost him Arab support as well (today Obama’s standing in Arab public opinion is lower than George W. Bush’s).

Resurrecting Obama’s reputation in the Middle East will be good for everything the United States needs to achieve there at a time of great challenge to American interests. Words alone will be insufficient to the task, but that speech in Jerusalem can be an important first step for his second term.