WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama’s coming trip to Israel will focus as much on looking to restart a frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as on any other issue.
Though Obama once considered peace between the Israelis and Palestinians a priority, little was accomplished in his first term. Peace talks stalled in 2010. And analysts say there are few expectations that Obama will deliver a new plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has bedeviled U.S. presidents for decades, when he arrives in Jerusalem, reportedly on March 20.
Instead, Obama’s first visit as president most likely is aimed at establishing trust with Netanyahu and an Israeli public that’s viewed Obama warily, and at a moment when talks with Iran over its nuclear program are entering a tenuous stage and fear is rising that violence in Syria might further destabilize the region.
“What they’re looking for is a sense of ‘He gets it. He understands the Israeli security position,’ ” said Jonathan Rynhold, an Israel studies expert from Bar-Ilan University in Israel who’s teaching at George Washington University. “The more that Israel feels that America is behind them on that, the more support from the public there is, and it makes it easier for the prime minister to make concessions on the peace process.”
The trip comes as both leaders start new terms. Netanyahu is still trying to put together a coalition government, but the White House brushed aside questions of delaying the visit in response and said it was on course with planning it.
The visit to one of the closest U.S. allies offers a chance for Obama to improve U.S.-Israeli ties, as well as counter domestic critics. Republicans have long criticized the president for not visiting Israel in his first term and have underscored his strained relations with Netanyahu. The prime minister made no secret before the U.S. election that he’d prefer to deal with a President Mitt Romney, a longtime friend.
“If anything, they’re trying to salvage the hope of a peace process,” said Michael Singh, a former director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush who’s now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research center. “One of the things that caused the process to regress has been the disconnect between the U.S. and Israel, and we’re still sort of living with the lingering effects.”
Netanyahu took pains this week to address the optics of the relationship, telling the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that Obama’s visit gives him the opportunity to extend “appreciation for what he has done for Israel.”
Divisions remain between the two, sharpened since Obama’s tough early stance in his first term against Israel’s building of Jewish settlements in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank, which the president will visit after meeting with Netanyahu. Some analysts expect Obama to privately press Netanyahu on concessions to the Palestinians and for patience with talks with Iran.
Netanyahu has pressed the president for a more muscular response in Iran and Syria. Obama won’t rule out military action to prevent Iran from securing a nuclear weapon but he thinks there’s still time for economic sanctions and diplomacy to convince Tehran to back down.