Yesterday I tweeted that I was pre-empting speculation and that no, Obama’s coming trip to Israel wasn’t about Iran. It was a response to the conventional wisdom that seems to always assume everything about Israel is about Iran—from last year’s short-lived Likud-Kadima government to the recent elections. But I did receive some pushback on the point, so here’s a fuller accounting of why I made the remark.
It should, though, be obvious that Iran will be near the top of the agenda. It’s a major issue for Israelis, including security officials, and despite the progress made on convergence of their positions, there are still gaps between the American and the Israeli understanding of how to deal with Iran. An Obama trip to the country gives him a direct sense of what the government is thinking and why, which could close some of this distance.
Beyond that, there is the fact that Colin Kahl, who worked for Obama during the election campaign, all but promised during a conference call with the media last July that there would be a visit if Obama was re-elected. Not following through would raise serious questions about Obama himself and his administration at a time when he’s facing all sorts of domestic pressure from pro-Israel Jewish groups and politicians to Republicans.
At the same time, the rest of Obama itinerary provides clues to his motivations. He’ll also be visiting with Palestinian and Jordanian leaders. These countries aren’t important for the confrontation against Iran, but they are for the peace process. Jordan’s domestic problems and its proximity to the Syrian civil war highlight its importance in other ways. In fact, given Israel’s growing concern about the consequences of the breakdown of central authority in Syria, that country is likely to be as high as Iran on the agenda.
The optics count, too. It’s the diplomatic version of smoothing things over and establishing a more personal basis with Benjamin Netanyahu on which to conduct the next four years of policy.
All of this raises the question of timing. In theory Obama could have gone later in the year. But reports are that he is going in March or April. I can think of several reasons.
His new Secretary of State, John Kerry, has already called Israeli and Palestinian leaders to tell them the peace process is one of his priorities. He’ll be visiting the region possibly within the month. An Obama follow-up will underline the importance of the relationship and demonstrate commitment to issues of concern to both countries.
Also, it’s likely that the new Israeli government will have been formed by the time of the visit. The weakening of Likud-Beiteinu and the strengthening of the soft right (Yesh Atid) and the left (Labor, Meretz) have opened up space for a different kind of government than the previous one. Although there is some debate over whether the likely inclusion of Yesh Atid can kick start the peace process, the unexpected priority that the administration has placed on this issue indicates that the president sees this as an opportune moment to remind Israel and Israelis that the US has their back, that peace is necessary for Palestinians and Israelis, and to provide some cover for Netanyahu on this issue against members of his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu, and possibly Jewish Home (if it’s included in the coalition).
Finally, Obama has been stung by accusations that his administration is at best insensitive to Israel and at worst anti-Israel. A visit to Israel is the most effective visible way to counter these attacks. We are constantly reminded by the president’s supporters that only four sitting presidents have ever visited Israel. Joining this small club is an effective way for Obama to address these kinds of domestic and Israeli concerns.
More specifically, the AIPAC conference is scheduled for March 3-5. It’s not clear yet whether Obama will be again speaking to the convention. If he does, he’ll be able to claim not only that he continues to show his commitment to Israeli security through military support, but can demonstrate a personal interest as well—the all-important kishkes factor. And if he’s not speaking at the conference, a visit to Israel is surely the next best thing.
Coordinating against Iran will be an important topic of discussion during Obama’s visit. But the president doesn’t have to travel to Israel for that; his political and defense officials can and do exchange visits with their Israeli counterparts for such purposes. I think, rather, that this convergence of factors explains the motivation and the timing of Obama’s visit.