Next month, two months into his second term, President Barack Obama will arrive in Israel, beginning a Middle East trip whose objective is muddled by the turmoil in the region. What exactly does Obama seek to achieve?
Any presidential trip begins long before Air Force One leaves the hangar. While the advance travel officials work out the details of the itinerary, the policy, politics and press people are already crafting their desired narrative. Item one on the agenda this time is lowering expectations.
Any insinuation that Obama will launch a new peace process between Israelis and Palestinians is quickly getting the wet blanket treatment. If nothing happens on that front, according to that message, don’t be disappointed. If it does, then we can all be surprised and impressed.
The strategy is not just a case of Machiavellian expectations management. These are truly difficult times to bring the sides together. But there is much the president can do to have a significant and positive impact in the region.
Obama’s presence, and the presumably powerful speeches he will deliver, will send strong messages to Israelis and to Arabs. The president should make two points clear to everyone while he’s there.
• First, for the sake of peace between Israel and its neighbors, he must erase any doubt that the United States is committed to Israel’s survival. If anyone has questions about that fact, reconciliation will never come.
• Second, he must remind Arabs that America supports secular democratic societies that give equal rights to all their citizens. That’s another point that may seem obvious to many, but finds many doubters in the Arab uprising states.
To most Americans, the survival of Israel, and America’s determination to ensure it, may seem beyond debate. But to many people in the Middle East it isn’t.
If Palestinians and other Arabs think there is any chance Israel will not survive, many will continue clinging to the belief that one day they can have all the territory where Israel stands. As a result, those calling for compromise can find their voices drowned by the ones that call excitedly for armed confrontation.
If Israelis feel safe, they, too, are more willing to take risks and make the sacrifices that a peace agreement would require. In addition, a feeling of greater security makes the peace-minded more willing to stand up to those in their own country who do not want to compromise. As long as Israelis feel compromise could lead to vulnerability and ultimately to disaster, they will not raise their voices against those who call for endless settlement activity.
America’s explicit and convincing commitment to Israel’s security strengthens the moderates on all sides. It weakens Hamas and Hezbollah, it weakens right-wing Israelis, and it makes the elusive two-state solution more achievable.
The same message can also play an important part in communicating with Iran and sending a unified, credible signal to the regime in Tehran regarding the West’s determination to prevent it from acquiring the capability to produce a nuclear weapon.
Obama can convince Israelis they are safe in the turbulent Middle East by, among other things, acknowledging their legitimate fears. Then he can — and I bet he will — call on them to take steps in a conciliatory direction. He can do it while recognizing that it is the Palestinians who have so far refused to sit down and talk.
Obama will travel to Ramallah to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, and he will visit Amman, where King Abdullah of Jordan, an ally of the U.S. and a supporter of the two-state solution, are both under pressure from Islamist political organizations.
The trip will give a boost to secular authorities during a time when secularism is losing ground to political Islam. King Abdullah has been trying to usher in gradual democratic reforms and he needs support.
Obama is likely to speak to large crowds and to receive continuous and intense coverage. His words should be directed at the entire region. He should seek to make common cause between the people of the United States and liberal, secular, democratic forces in the entire Arab Middle East, who feel Washington has abandoned them during these crucial times.
Obama will not fly home with a major victory, but the low expectations mean a successful trip is an achievable goal. In fact, Obama could do much more. There are some very specific steps that could produce significant results. But let’s not list those right now and risk raising expectations.