President Barack Obama heads to Israel late Tuesday for the first foreign trip of his second term, a visit more about maintaining the status quo in a region filled with upheaval than about historic treaties or groundbreaking peace deals. When U.S. Presidents visited Jerusalem in years past, it was for big reasons, usually involving the ends of various conflicts or to make a push for Middle East peace. Obama’s ambitions are a lot smaller.
The President’s hopes for this trip are about getting leaders not to do things, rather than prompting action. In Jerusalem, he needs Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to bomb Iran before diplomatic talks have run their course. He also wants Netanyahu to stop, or at least slow, the building of new settlements in Palestinian areas so as to give the peace process a chance. And Obama would like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas not to report Israel to the International Criminal Court for human-rights violations. “This trip is about managing Middle East problems. It’s not about solving them,” says Haim Malka, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The President’s broad objectives are to convince the Israeli and Palestinian publics that he’s protecting their interests and preventing their leaders from taking any unilateral steps that would undermine U.S. interests and their own,” Malka says.
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For an American President, Obama is unusually unpopular among Israelis: he had a 33% approval rating last year. Which is why instead of speaking to the Israeli parliament, Obama chose to give a speech directly to the Israeli people. “Given this is his first trip to Israel as President, we thought that it was very important for him to speak directly to Israelis about the nature of the friendship between the United States and Israel, and the challenges that we’re faced with,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters ahead of the trip. Obama may not change public opinion with a single speech, but courting the Israeli public will help build trust when the President asks their leaders to have faith that the U.S. will act to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Israel worries that Iran is using talks with international powers as a way to stall while building a program that can rapidly enrich enough uranium not just for one bomb but for many. “Think of the Iranian nuclear-weapons program as a horse race: now, when the bell goes off, a single horse might be able to gallop out of the gate and run a full track in front of spectators,” Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren says. “The Iranian regime, though, wants to unleash 20 horses out of the gate at the same time,” he says. For Israel, Iran obtaining nuclear weapons is a much more existential threat than for Washington, lying safely 6,000 miles away. Jerusalem’s military opportunity to strike Iran is closing, while the U.S. has a longer timeline to hit Iran’s centrifuges. Obama is asking Israel to trust he’ll protect them when they no longer can protect themselves; that would give negotiators more time to come to a diplomatic resolution.
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On the peace process, Obama intends to do a listening tour, visiting with both Israelis and Palestinians and seeing where common ground might be found. Little has been done on a two-state solution since U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell resigned in disgust in May 2011, saying the process had “hit a brick wall.” Secretary of State John Kerry, who will be traveling with Obama, is anxious to take advantage of Israel’s recent election — Netanyahu literally only just formed a government over the weekend — to see if moderate Israeli support can be drummed up for a new round of talks. But no breakthrough is expected on this trip — indeed the White House did everything it could to lower expectations publicly.
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Peace talks mean getting the Palestinians to the table as well, and Abbas has not wanted to restart a whole new process, insisting the Israelis go back to the terms he negotiated with the last Israeli government under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted the talks begin anew. Abbas is further debilitated by Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip and the Islamist group’s growing popularity in the West Bank. Without the popular support of all Palestinians, Abbas’ bargaining position is weak and he has little incentive to come to the table. Until the Palestinian factions are united, it will be impossible for Abbas — or any Palestinian leader — to compromise with Israel without losing credibility at home.
Abbas’ only power — and popularity — of late has come when he defied both Israel and the U.S. to petition the U.N. to recognize Palestine as a state. Having Israel tried for human-rights violations by the International Criminal Court is wildly popular among Palestinians and one of the only threats remaining to Abbas. Obama’s job will be to convince Abbas that coming to the table with Israel and the U.S. is in his better interests than going outside the process. Obama must also reassure the Palestinian people of America’s support. To that end, Kerry has said he will deliver $700 million in aid to Palestine withheld by Congress after Abbas’ push for statehood at the U.N. Since Obama took office in 2009, some 60,000 more Israelis have settled on Palestinian lands, and Obama will press for a freeze or slowing of those developments. The Palestinians are also hoping Israel will release 1,000 prisoners and return some of the tax money Jerusalem collected from Palestinians but has held back for months.
Perhaps Obama’s trip will also be highly symbolic. He will view the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2,000-year-old evidence of Israel’s long ties and ancient claim to the land. The President will also visit Mount Herzl, where he’ll lay wreaths at the graves of slain Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin and Zionist Theodor Herzl, who envisioned an Israeli state before the Holocaust. In the West Bank, Obama will visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
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The President will wrap up his tour in Jordan, where he’ll try to persuade King Abdullah not to close his borders to Syrians fleeing the two-year-old civil war, even as Jordan’s economy buckles under the strain of 400,000 refugees, with twice that number expected by year’s end. Jordan’s economy has also taken a hit as tourism has fallen off because of regional unrest and the perception of insecurity. To promote Jordan, Obama will play tourist for a day, visiting the ancient site of Petra with 500 international journalists in tow, demonstrating how safe and appealing Jordan’s tourist attractions remain. Jordan also hopes for more pledges of support from the U.S. for the Syrian refugees and for its own economic reforms.
All of Obama’s efforts this week will be running to stay in place: from pushing Israelis and Palestinians to place international interests above domestic pressures, to bolstering Jordan’s regime against the pressures of the Arab Spring. Sometimes the second-term Presidents look abroad for a legacy. So far, Obama’s second-term foreign policy ambitions in the Middle East are hardly lofty: striving for the status quo ante, lest things get worse than they already are.
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