On his second trip to the Middle East as U.S. commander in chief, President Barack Obama this week will confront a political and strategic landscape nearly unrecognizable from the one he encountered on his first trip to the region shortly after assuming office in 2009.
Gone are the authoritarian regimes and leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and the once seemingly indestructible Assad regime in Syria is tottering on the brink of collapse. Uncertainty abounds in the wake of the revolutions that have convulsed the Arab world for the past two years and shaken many of the strong but imperfect pillars of stability on the planet’s most politically volatile patch of land.
And the few constants are hardly cause for cheer: a moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process that remains mired in mutual distrust and recrimination, an Iran that seemingly inches closer to nuclear weapons capability despite intensified international sanctions, and the ever-growing threat from extremists.
At the same time, Obama’s 2012 re-election has changed his political calculus. Having run his last race as a political candidate, he is no longer beholden to the whims of voters. His sights appear set on building a legacy that, at least in the short term, is focused not on foreign policy but on the domestic issues that now drive the agenda in Washington.
Thus, U.S. officials have set expectations low for the trip. No new plan to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. No big boost in assistance to the struggling Palestinian Authority. No new strategy for dealing with the chaos in Syria. No new outreach to Muslims like the one that was the centerpiece of his June 2009 visit to Cairo.
Instead, they have presented Obama’s visit to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan as a symbolic, hand-holding trip. Obama’s goals are to reassure nervous Israelis that the U.S. has their back in the face of any threats, tell the Palestinians that their aspirations for statehood are in America’s national security interests and show support for a Jordanian monarchy that is struggling to satisfy its subjects’ demands for reform while dealing with the spillover from the civil war in Syria.
It may seem incongruous that an American president feels the need to calm Israeli’s fears about Washington’s commitment to their security at a time when officials from both countries say U.S. and Israeli interests are more inextricably linked than ever before.
However, one reason for the uneasiness is the strained personal relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They and their surrogates have sparred, most notably over Jewish settlements in areas claimed by the Palestinians, numerous times, leading many to speak of an open rift. The chill has manifested itself in unprecedented low approval ratings for Obama in Israel. The centerpiece of Obama’s trip will be a speech to the Israeli people to pledge friendship and security.
Much of the symbolism around Obama’s speech is aimed at showing his understanding of the Jewish people’s millennia-old connection to the land that is now Israel, and his awareness that the modern State of Israel was not created merely as a consequence of the Holocaust. A visit to an Iron Dome battery, part of the missile defense system the U.S. has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into, will underscore Washington’s investment in Israel’s security.
In both countries, officials hope that an American president on Israeli soil, affirming America’s unwavering support for Israel, will quell the concerns from the Israeli perspective. Equally, if not more important, is channeling that message to anti-Israel actors, including Iran, Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah, and the Hamas faction of the Palestinians that controls the Gaza Strip.
The goodwill Obama hopes to inspire is expected to be accompanied by gentle encouragement of Israelis and their leaders to be more sensitive the new realities of the region and not take actions that provoke or irritate the very people with whom they desire better ties.
In many ways, Obama faces a similar perception problem among Palestinians who were buoyed by his early support for their longstanding position on settlements, but have been bitterly disappointed by the lack of any progress on achieving statehood.
So, with prospects dim for new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks any time soon, in part because Netanyahu has just formed a new government, Obama will bring a similar message to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas’ administration has infuriated Israel and annoyed the United States by seeking recognition as a state from the United Nations in the absence of a peace agreement.
Obama is expected to warn anew that such acts only hurt chances for getting back to negotiations, but stress that the United States is firmly committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and will continue to be an honest broker on the path to get there.
U.S. officials hope Obama’s visit to Jordan will boost King Abdullah II’s standing both at home among a restive population and in the region where, since the Muslim Brotherhood won elections in Egypt, his nation is the more solid of Israel’s two Arab friends.
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