Since the White House announced that President Barack Obama will travel to Israel for his first overseas trip since he was reelected in November, commentators have jumped to the newspapers and airwaves to tackle the questions that everyone has been asking: what does he plan to do, what should he do and who will he meet?
The second question, courtesy of the White House press team, is now answered. President Obama will fly into Israel to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The right-wing leader won reelection himself in January and formed a coalition with centrist parties last week.
As he did during his presidential campaign five years ago, Obama will make a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum. He would also like to make a stop at the Church of the Nativity, one of the most holy places for Christians worldwide.
After speaking with Netanyahu and giving a speech to thousands of Israelis in Jerusalem, the president will make a brief appearance in the West Bank to discuss the Middle East peace process with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas before dining with King Abdullah II of Jordan on the last leg of his trip.
For Israelis, Obama’s visit will be historic. It will be the first time that he has set foot on Israeli soil as president.
Yet absent his speech and the ceremonial activities, Obama’s tour of Israel will probably not be all that exciting or newsworthy in terms of the big issues.
Having been embarrassed in 2010 when the White House tried, and failed, to revive peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians — the talks lasted only a couple of weeks — administration officials have made clear that no new peace plan will be introduced.
Iran’s uranium enrichment program, a major concern to Israelis who fear that the Islamic republic is developing a nuclear weapons capability, will surely be broached in the middle of the president’s talks with Netanyahu but no breakthroughs are expected on this front either.
The most that observers hope for is a joint statement and news conference from two man who have had a cool personal relationship.
Obama’s trip to Israel does, however, serve a purpose. It allows the president to sit and chat with Netanyahu about Israel’s security concerns. It will also give the American the opportunity to hear just what Netanyahu is thinking on a variety of fronts, particularly Iran’s pursuit of uranium enrichment and whether the Israeli government will back Washington’s effort to solve the problem diplomatically.
Israeli officials have repeatedly warned that the country may resort to force to prevent Iran from attaining the ability to build an atomic weapon. Netanyahu may not like Obama’s strategy of diplomacy and sanctions but there is a high likelihood that he will be asked by the president to respect it and give the policy more time.
Perhaps more important for the average Israeli, the trip will be seen as a chance for the president to look into the eyes of the country’s people and hear what they have to say. For an Israeli public that has, at best, an ambivalent view about Obama’s dedication to Israel and the broader American-Israel relationship, his visit and his speech might take away some of their doubts.
Obama’s team has called the visit to Israel a “maintenance trip.” Judging from the president’s strict itinerary and short stay, that seems an accurate label.