U.S. President Barack Obama isn't coming to Israel to improve his image among Israelis. He isn't coming to balance out his 2009 trip to the Middle East in which he skipped Israel. And he isn't coming to strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance. All of these assessments, which have appeared in the Israeli media, miss the point.
To understand Obama's motives, one must look at his Middle East policies during his first term and the appointments he has made at the start of his second term. The main characteristic defining the Obama administration's attitude toward the world is engagement, that is to say an aspiration for dialogue between countries, particularly between rivals, and the ruling out of any projection of threat or power.
We have seen the implementation of these principles through the conduct of the U.S. in our region over the past two years.
In Libya, the White House decided, after hesitating, to give limited support "from behind" to Britain and France, who lead the effort to destroy Moammar Gadhafi's army from the air. The Americans did not correctly read the map in terms of the composition of the rebel forces in Libya, leading to the murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
In Egypt, Obama was quick to call for the replacement of Hosni Mubarak, clearing the way for the Muslim Brotherhood to seize power.
In Syria, the White House, in light of its failures in Libya and Egypt, has hesitated for a prolonged time period, resulting in a terrible bloodbath and the strengthening of al-Qaida elements and other extremists.
The appointments of John Kerry as secretary of state, Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and John Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency have been interpreted in the U.S. as a continuation of the same path of engagement, with even greater vigor. Kerry and Hagel have clearly stated that they adhere to the path of dialogue and understanding to solve international problems.
As a senator, Kerry visited Damascus, before the uprising broke out, and praised Syrian President Assad as a "reformer." Brennan served for many years as the head of the CIA branch in Saudi Arabia, speaks Arabic, praised Islam and defined jihad as a desire for spiritual perfection. In the past, Hagel spoke out against sanctions on Iran and he is now advocating a solution through negotiations with Iran. He also made some past unpleasant (to say the least) comments about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
These appointments reflect Obama's way of thinking about what he seeks to accomplish in his second term. So why did Obama decide to come to Israel on the first foreign visit of his second term? Obama continues to believe that the establishment of a Palestinian state would contribute to improving the atmosphere in the Middle East and help him promote his policies in the region.
The Iranian nuclear problem is more urgent. Judging by Obama's statements in recent years and those of his new appointees, Obama hopes to deal with Iran in his own way and prevent any surprise from Israel. Obama will pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to commit to not acting against Iran without getting a green light from him. The precedent of U.S. conduct toward North Korea is a cause of concern in Israel.
In any case, Obama's visit to Israel is among the toughest challenges facing Netanyahu.
Yossi Ben-Aharon served as the bureau chief of the Prime Minister's Office from 1986-1992 under Yitzhak Shamir.