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Much Rides on Obama's Visit to Israel

Much Rides on Obama's Visit to Israel

By Peter Berkowitz - March 18, 2013

TEL AVIV -- Last week, at the annual Herzliya Conference on national security, speculation was rampant about the purpose of Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel as president of the United States. One common view was that what the American leader hopes to accomplish upon arriving here on March 20 is to get out of Israel as soon as possible.

Such an ambition would be understandable. In his first term, Obama sought to orchestrate a comprehensive resolution of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This, too, reflected an understandable impulse, even an admirable one. But at best he went about it naively. By putting significant pressure on the Israelis and none on the Palestinians, the president managed to sow distrust in Jerusalem and inflate expectations in Ramallah, a bad recipe for a peace process that demands painful concessions from both sides.

In the winter of 2011, the Obama administration greeted the Arab Spring as the herald of liberty and democracy in the Middle East. Instead, as the Israelis had cautioned, the uprisings of 2011 have proved a destabilizing force in the region. They have been marked by the resurgence of Islamic tradition in contest with modernity, and the reemergence of sectarian and tribal loyalties in competition with the centralizing nation state.

Egypt, the largest and leading Arab state, is in crisis. It has lost control over swaths of its territory in the Sinai Peninsula and in sections of Cairo, its economy is in shambles, and it must import food for tens of millions.

Although President Bashar al-Assad is still hanging on two years after the outbreak of civil war, Syria is collapsing. Lebanon, fragile as always, is increasingly drawn into the Syrian conflict as Assad-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon seeks to protect its protector in Syria. Jordan must deal with an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood even as, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, 350,000 Syrians have poured across its border. Libya remains fractured. Bahrain is teetering.

Meanwhile, despite unprecedentedly tough American-led sanctions, Iran continues to enrich uranium and process plutonium. In Israel, which is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring the capability of building a nuclear weapon, it is widely thought that Iran is months away from crossing that so-called “red” line.

The United States, Obama has insisted, is committed to preventing Iran from possessing a nuclear weapon, and will use all options -- including, as a last resort, a military one -- to achieve its goal. However, since preventing Iran from possessing a nuclear weapon is consistent with allowing Tehran to acquire all the elements for a bomb as long as it doesn’t assemble them, the United States draws a red line and operates on a timetable that differ from Israel’s.

On top of the lingering tensions and conflicting assessments, there is a widespread perception in Israel -- and throughout the Middle East, in Europe, and in the United States itself -- that the Obama administration aims to reduce the U.S. role in the Middle East. The thinking here is that America encounters no global enemy, as during the Cold War; Obama certainly does not regard Islamic extremism in the way Ronald Reagan regarded Soviet communism. Israelis also worry that the administration is preoccupied with budget battles with Republicans and winning back the House of Representatives in 2014. And, notwithstanding the president’s determination to promote clean energy, Israelis are concerned that the hydraulic fracturing revolution, which has already reduced America’s direct dependence on Middle East oil, will also lessen American interest in the region.

One can see how, in these circumstances, the Obama team may have concluded that the primary benefits of visiting Israel concern domestic politics. By means of a very public display of solidarity with Israel, the president may hope to silence domestic critics who charge that his decision not to visit Israel during his first term reflects a coldness toward the Jewish state, and to placate domestic supporters who wish to have their confidence in the president’s good intentions toward Israel reinforced.

But it is a mistake to believe that U.S. interests would be well-served by diminishing America’s role in the Middle East. Important tasks await the president in the region.

At the Herzliya Conference, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro vigorously insisted that the White House viewed the president’s impending visit as a chance to build confidence in an already strong relationship and to refine a joint understanding of America’s Middle East strategy.

According to Shapiro, Obama -- who will also be meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem and King Abdullah of Jordan in Amman -- will reaffirm the moral bond between the two democracies; underscore America’s unbreakable commitment to Israel’s security; and advance important foreign policy goals through in-depth discussions about the two countries’ shared interests.

The evidence indicates that the Israelis are taking this visit seriously. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who devoted last week to putting finishing touches on his new government, has made clear his intention to focus discussions with the president and his team on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, the disintegration of Syria, and the stalled peace process with the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s staff is working long hours, both to prepare for the substantial discussions and to ensure that all the ceremonial and public aspects of the presidential visit come off without a hitch.

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 Peter Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.  His writings are posted at www.PeterBerkowitz.com and you can follow him on Twitter @BerkowitzPeter.

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