Why Is Obama Going to Israel—Now?

President Obama’s visit to Israel this week is a big deal. Not because it is expected to lead to a breakthrough in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, nor to a unified U.S.-Israeli position on the Iranian nuclear challenge. It is a big deal, simply because it is happening.

A presidential visit to Israel is not routine. Quite the contrary. Since its birth in 1948, only four American presidents have visited Israel—Nixon, Carter, Clinton and Bush II. Obama will be the fifth. Truman, first to recognize Israel, never visited the state; nor did Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Reagan or Bush I.

Israel is hailed as America’s closest ally in the Middle East, but obviously such rhetorical affection, even esteem, has not translated into an Obama visit. Not till now. For example, several months into his first term as president, Obama traveled to Egypt, where he delivered a major speech about American-Arab relations, but then, foolishly, chose not to stop in near-by Israel. That slight, or so it was interpreted in Israel, proved to be a major diplomatic blunder.

So, why go to Israel now? Considering the president’s huge economic and political problems at home, it would surely make more sense for Obama to stay in or near the White House than to whisk off to the Middle East and spend the better part of a week in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. But off he goes. The president now realizes that if he is to achieve progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, if he is to persuade Iran, through diplomacy, not to build nuclear weapons, if he is to come up with a realistic policy toward crumbling Syria, he must first develop a good, solid, working relationship with Israel, meaning with Israel’s recently-re-elected prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Everyone knows that Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu has been frayed and unusually testy, and it needs dramatic improvement—and needs it now. Trust, so clearly in short supply between these two leaders, must be developed. Commonality of views and policies must be nurtured. Time is of the essence–so fragile is the balance between war and peace in the Middle East. The dangers and differences are obvious.

On Iran: Netanyahu believes that Iran will be able to produce the ingredients for a nuclear bomb late this spring or summer. Obama thinks Iran needs at least another year. The Iran danger requires a coordinated policy, and at the moment that does not exist.

On Syria: Netanyahu wants the U.S. to bomb Syrian rockets on their way to Hezbollah in Lebanon, even if that escalates the already dreadful conflict in Syria. The U.S. appears ready to use its military force in Syria only when President Assad decides to commit his chemical and biological weapons to his war against the insurgents—only, in other words, as truly a last resort. Syria looks like a hot firecracker about to explode and envelop the region, and the U.S. so far remains on the sideline.

On the chronic Palestinian conundrum: Obama’s White House has already made it clear the president will not be carrying any plan for a Palestinian-Israeli agreement, and that’s fine with Netanyahu, who does not seem eager to move on this front anyway.

Obama’s aim on this trip will be to persuade as many Israelis as possible that he is their friend and supporter in any possible conflict with Iran or Arab opponents, and that if the Israelis reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the U.S. will back it fully. This is his hope, his way of extending a hand of friendship and cooperation and reducing the distrust and disappointment many Israelis have felt towards Obama ever since he stiffed them in 2009 after his Cairo speech.

It is often said of Obama that Israel has been, for him, an acquired taste. He did not, and probably still does not, feel an instinctive sympathy for Israel. But he knows now, if he did not earlier, that it is very hard, if not impossible, for an American president to reach across the chasm of Israeli-Arab hostility and arrange an agreement between the two belligerents without first establishing a beachhead of sympathy and understanding with Israel. There is no guarantee that Obama will be able in his second term to midwife a Palestinian-Israeli agreement; but if he is to do so, he knows he must first improve his relations with Israel. Basically, that’s what this journey is all about.