As Joe Biden wings his way to Rome to celebrate the installation mass of new Roman Catholic pontiff Pope Francis at the Vatican, his boss will make a pilgrimage — of sorts — to Jerusalem. Despite his high-profile visit to Israel in 2007 as a candidate with little foreign-policy experience, Barack Obama never bothered to visit the close US ally during his first term — not even when Obama was in Cairo in 2009 for a speech to Muslim nations. Now he wants to pay a visit not so much to strengthen ties but to strengthen his own position in Israel. CNN reports on the goals of the trip from the perspective of the White House, which seems to want to set low expectations ahead of this week’s visit:
The big push is about Iran rather than any movement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and it’s mainly to pull Israel back from taking unilateral action against Tehran. He will make stops at the West Bank and Yad Vashem, but that’s mainly just to check boxes; oddly, Obama won’t address the Knesset while in Israel. After his disastrous intervention in the peace process in the first term, Obama now seems to want to stay clear of any personal involvement, and will probably leave that to Secretary of State John Kerry.
If the Obama administration wants to set low expectations, the BBC wants to set them even lower. Mark Mardell quotes a former US ambassador to Israel in calling Obama a “rock star,” but also notes that Israelis seem immune to his charm, and that spells trouble for Obama on this visit:
The main purpose of Obama’s visit seems to be to re-make his image with the Israeli people. A recent poll indicated only 10% of them had a favourable view of the president.
Obama critics at home have long claimed that he’s no friend of Israel and say the proof positive is that he hasn’t bothered to go there as president. By making this the first foreign trip of his second term he at least gets that out of the way.
He’ll be only the fifth US president to go to Israel, but his recent predecessors Bill Clinton and George W Bush invested a lot in the relationship.
Obama offended some early on in his presidency by going to Cairo to make a high-profile speech to the Arab world but not continuing on to Israel. The speech also offended some Israelis because of the way he made a case for Israel’s existence based on the horrors of the Holocaust rather than Jewish origins in the region. Expect him to correct that on this trip. …
One aim of the visit will be to present a chummier image. A sense of unity is important if Iran is going to believe that the two countries are capable of concerted action over its nuclear programme.
But it is the speech at a convention centre in Jerusalem, where he will talk directly to the Israeli public and the public watching at home, that is the real centrepiece of this trip.
Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel, says: “He’s a rock star. They will welcome him. He’s bound to get a bounce. And that is very important. This is a public who will punish a prime minister who mishandles his relationship with a popular president.
“Netanyahu eats [opinion] polls for breakfast. He will know if the balance changes.”
Netanyahu just won an election, so it may not be much of a match, especially if Obama’s only around 10% approval in Israel. Will he get a bounce? Certainly; that is to be expected from a personal visit, and unless Obama makes a major gaffe, his image will improve temporarily. However, Obama’s problem hasn’t been so much a lack of a visit as it has been his handling of Israeli concerns in the peace process and the firestorm of the “Arab Spring” surrounding Israel. That will take more than a one-week junket to resolve. Absent that, this is just a box-checking enterprise, as Mardell explains at length.
Politico says the point of going now is the abysmally-low expectations:
President Barack Obama spent his first term dismissing the idea of a symbolic visit to Israel: He didn’t want to go there unless he had something concrete to accomplish.
But his four-day trip that begins Tuesday night is symbolism on steroids.
The Israeli government was just finalized Saturday night. The peace process is frozen. And Obama has a complicated relationship with both the nation and its prime minister.
Indeed, the White House seems to have concluded that expectations are now so low that it’s the perfect time for Obama to make the trip. He has a chance to mollify some of his domestic critics and improve his standing with Israelis, all without the pressure of achieving a breakthrough on peace.
In other words, he’s just checking off the box — and perhaps to immunize himself from accusations of being anti-Israel when his later policies and actions clash with expectations of Israel’s supporters in the US.