Obama's Mideast trip: how he plans to win over the Israeli public, and why

Obama's four-day Mideast trip will include hours of meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu, but it's his overture to the Israeli public that may help him address regional issues in the future.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
An Israeli flag flies on a hill near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Elazar, near Bethlehem, Sunday. President Obama is due to make his first official visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week, looking to improve ties after sometimes rocky relations with both sides during his first term in office.
RIch Claubaugh/Staff

President Obama’s visit to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan this week is scheduled to include more than five hours of meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the president seeks to reduce tensions with the leader of America’s closest Middle East ally on issues ranging from Iran to peace with the Palestinians.

But the trip, which begins Wednesday morning when Mr. Obama lands in Tel Aviv, is also about repairing relations with another audience that will be key to the president’s prospects for advancing important regional goals for his second term: the Israeli public.

“This trip is very much focused on the public diplomacy side [of relations with Israel], much less on the hard substance,” says Natan Sachs, an expert in Israeli foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The White House is calling a speech Obama will give to the Israeli public – with an audience made up largely of young people – the centerpiece of the president’s visit. “The speech,” Mr. Sachs says, “is the vehicle for the president to make his reintroduction” to a skeptical Israel.

Israelis, who never embraced Obama the way many other audiences around the world did, have never quite forgiven this American president for putting nearby Cairo on the list of sites for his first term’s signature global issues speeches – without even making a stop in Israel.

But Obama, with a speech that warms up his image among Israelis, would be able to win not just popularity points, but even critical support for US initiatives in the region, Sachs says.

“For the Israelis, it’s not, ‘What have you done for me lately,’ it’s ‘Do you love me?’ ” he says.

Further evidence that Obama is out to redefine Israelis’ impression of him comes from two of the iconic Israeli sites he will visit on his trip: the exhibit of the Dead Sea scrolls, which is seen as Obama’s recognition of the Jewish people’s roots in Israel; and the grave of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl. Both stops are aimed at correcting the impression left from Obama’s Cairo speech that he sees Israel’s creation as the result of the Holocaust rather than a millennia-old right to ancient Jewish lands.     

Obama is “bound to get a bounce” in Israel from his public diplomacy offensive, Sachs says, adding that improved public views of Obama could make a difference down the road.

“The Israeli public will punish a prime minister who has a poor relationship with a popular American president,” he says. Thus a more popular Obama could lead to “a more pliant Netanyahu,” he adds, for example on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The sense that Obama’s trip is really more about improving the climate for future initiatives than about setting down an ambitious agenda is prominent in White House pre-trip commentary.

“There are obviously going to be significant decisions in the months and years ahead about Iran, about Syria, about Israeli-Palestinian peace,” says Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Discussions Obama will have with Israeli and other leaders “can frame those decisions that ultimately will come down the line,” he says. “That's the way in which the president is approaching the trip.”  

The perception of tilling the ground for the future is echoed by regional analysts.

“This is a down-payment trip,” says Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “If Obama’s stock goes up [as a result of the visit] in the eyes of the Israeli public, it will put additional pressure on Netanyahu.”

The perception that Obama aims to make incremental progress with this trip – while laying the groundwork for a potentially brighter horizon – also applies at the regional level, others say. “This trip is about managing Middle East problems, not solving them,” says Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

Whether the issue is Iran or Syria or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama is visiting the region with no answers in his pocket but with an eye on keeping any of a number of crises from spinning out of control, Mr. Malka and other analysts say.

Iran is certain to be topic No. 1 for Prime Minister Netanyahu. Obama will underscore his view, which he laid out to Israeli television last week, that there is still a “window” for an international diplomatic effort to resolve concerns about Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

Yet even as Obama argues that diplomacy backed up by sanctions deserves more time, the Israeli leader “will try to convince Obama that only threatening the use of force” to stop Iran’s nuclear progress – and meaning it – will have an impact on the Iranians, Malka says.

And while the civil war in Syria may not get top billing, the gravity of the violence and the growing regional implications of the two-year-old conflict are quickly moving Syria up on the regional agenda, some experts say.

“Syria is quite frankly the most burning issue they [Obama and Netanyahu] have on the table to discuss,” says David Ottoway, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center. “If this is a year of diplomacy toward Iran, it is also a year of trying to decide when and if the US and Israel are going to intervene” in Syria to safeguard and stop the transfer of chemical weapons, he says.

Nor is Obama expected to lay out any new initiative for advancing the goal of a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One reason is that Obama’s “fingers were burnt” when he last tried to nudge the peace process along, says Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel who is now director of the foreign policy program at Brookings.

But even if Obama was inclined to kick-start the peace process with a renewed effort, the two sides in the conflict simply aren’t ready, Ambassador Indyk and others say. Netanyahu has just cobbled together a new coalition government (after January elections) that is largely focused on domestic economic and social issues. And the Palestinians remain deeply divided between Fatah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, and Hamas in Gaza.

Obama will make the short trip from Jerusalem to Ramallah in “the Beast,” the president’s armored limousine, to meet with President Abbas on Thursday. But Obama won’t even attempt a charm offensive with the Palestinian public, instead making some time in his Ramallah schedule to meet informally with a group of Palestinian youths.

The president’s last stop on a four-day trip will be Jordan – and there again, there’s a strong sense that the visit is more about preparing for the “significant decisions” of the future than about solving problems today.

Obama will meet with King Abdullah, one of America’s closest Arab partners – but one whose country is increasingly feeling the weight of the Syrian refugee crisis. The growing humanitarian crisis only adds to tensions in Jordan over a struggling economy and steady – but by many accounts insufficient – political reforms.

By visiting Jordan, Obama is signaling that he wants to include in his trip an Arab country that the US foresees as a partner in addressing the region’s issues, analysts say – and these days Jordan may have stood out as his least problematic option.

Underscoring how things have changed in the Middle East since Obama gave his Cairo speech in May 2009, CSIS’s Malka says, “It would be way too complicated for the president to wade into Egypt at the moment.”

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