It took a full term and a few months, but U.S. President Barack Obama, who has visited some 40 countries while bypassing Israel on several prior trips to the region, will finally pay a visit to the Jewish state, probably at the end of March.
Just a few hours after the announcement of the president's visit was made known, its purpose was already in dispute. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro was first out of the box, with a statement that peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians were going to be a key part of the agenda for the meeting between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (The president also announced a visit to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah after the visit to Israel, as well as another visit to King Abdullah of Jordan.) A few hours later, Shapiro announced that peace talks were not part of the president's agenda for the meeting with Netanyahu, and that the meeting between the two leaders would instead focus on Iran and Syria.
It should not be surprising that State Department officials, including ambassadors to the region, are eager for more peace processing. That activity has gone on for roughly 20 years, since the start of the Oslo process, with very little to show for it, but State Department officials are always hearing from their embassy personnel in the region how important it is to end the Israeli "occupation" and create a Palestinian state. While it would be difficult to believe that these people are unaware of the history of the futility of the peacemaking effort, the perception is there, nonetheless, that if America is "engaged" in peace processing (meaning asking or demanding concessions from Israel), this will be looked on favorably in the Arab and Muslim world.
A corollary to the need for pressure on Israel to improve conditions for the Palestinians has been the theory that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to the concerns of most of the people in the region, and a critical factor in how people and their governments view the U.S. This theory further argues that the U.S.-Israel alliance is viewed very negatively by people in the region. The U.S. is one-sided and does not adequately address Palestinian concerns. If it wants to be better received by the Arabs, it needs to become involved in peace processing and force a deal on Israel to prove its evenhandedness. At times, the "logic" of a need for getting a deal done between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is that progress on other issues involving these countries cannot be accomplished without a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One would think that after the chaos seen in he region in recent months and years — the bitter fruits of the "Arab spring" in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria, not to mention Iran's come-and-gone "green revolution" — the lack of centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the internal discord, civil wars, economic collapse and political decay in these countries (one form of tyranny replacing another) would be obvious.
Obama represents a political party in the U.S. which, with each passing year, is less focused on the importance of Israel to the U.S. There is no greater evidence of this than the president's nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel to be the new defense secretary. Despite a long record of hostility to Israel, borderline anti-Semitic remarks on more than one occasion ("the Jewish lobby intimidates Congress" or "let the Jews pay for it"), a seeming unawareness of U.S. policy toward Iran's nuclear program (Hagel seems to think containment is the goal), a comfort with downsizing the military and pulling back on U.S. commitments around the world, a desire to eliminate all nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal, and to cap it off, a woefully inept performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, not a single member of the president's party has indicated that he or she will oppose the Hagel nomination. It looks at this point as if the nomination will slide through to confirmation in the next week, barring new developments. New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the self-proclaimed defender of the Jews and Israel, gave cover to any Hagel doubters in his party when he met with the former senator for 90 minutes and announced that he believed all of Hagel's new "confirmation conversion" proclamations that put the lie to everything Hagel has said or voted for or against in the past 15 years.
In Obama's first term, while there were at times severe tensions between the president and his Israeli counterpart, mainly over the nature of settlement freezes and the announcement by Israel of some future planned settlement expansions, the defense relationship between the two countries was generally very good. Now with Hagel as defense secretary, what comfort will Israel have in the relationship on this level?
For Israel, security is the primary international concern. The recent airstrikes in Syria, designed to eliminate a convoy of weapons passing from Syria to the Iranian-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah in Lebanon, were evidence of how the chaos in Syria may be creating another more dangerous front on Israel's border.
The Iranian nuclear program remains the focus of Netanyahu and his government. There are unconfirmed stories about an explosion at the Fordo nuclear site in Iran two weeks back, that, if true, would represent the most successful sabotage effort to date in the attempt to delay the Iranian program. Iran is claiming that it is already a nuclear nation, with some Western estimates that Iran has enough enriched uranium for five bombs.
If the president is coming to Israel primarily to get negotiations started again between the Palestinians and Israel, he is choosing to focus on a path that is distinctly secondary in Israel's strategic calculus at the moment. Israel should be concerned that the U.S. may soon have a defense secretary who has indicated time and again a near complete opposition even to considering any American military role to stop Iran's nuclear program. At his confirmation hearing, Hagel was quick to recount the casualty figures from the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which he initially supported. His goal, it seems, is to keep that number at zero during Obama's second term.
Were Israel to decide to strike at Iran on its own, the blowback from Iran could include attacks against U.S. interests in the region, as well as possible terrorism activities within the U.S. conducted by Hezbollah agents. The U.S. might be drawn into a conflict even if it chooses to stay on the sidelines. Inevitably, this means the U.S. will pressure Israel to give it more time before contemplating any military action, so the U.S. can make progress with Iran using either diplomacy or sanctions, one of which (diplomacy) has had no success at all so far, the other (sanctions) which has had little effect, due to the grant of numerous waivers, as well as violations by companies and nations.
It is good that the president is finally coming to Israel, but there are many doubters in Israel about the sincerity of the president's commitment to stopping Iran's nuclear program. In the president's first term, his demand for a complete Israeli settlement freeze seemed to take precedence over any effort with Iran. Some of the president's backers argued that getting any kind of international consensus on sanctions against Iran would require the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That conflict has been so easy to resolve that it has been running for 100 years, with no success. In reality, these Obama supporters cared little about the Iranian nuclear program (another case of Israel crying wolf), but were singularly obsessed with the stalled peace process.
If there is a home-court edge to meetings between the leaders of two countries, Netanyahu needs to play it during the president's visit. On the matter that matters, time is running short for Israel.