I’m a day behind on writing about this, but as everyone now knows and has processed, President Obama will be visiting Israel next month. There is lots of speculation about why he is going, and most of it has focused on the peace process. The instant conventional wisdom is that Obama is going to lean hard on Prime Minister Netanyahu to restart serious talks with the Palestinians and that the focus of the new Israeli government is now going to be on diplomacy and the two-state solution rather than on the domestic issues over which the election was fought. There are even those who argue, as Dan Margalit does in Israel Hayom, that Obama’s pending arrival is going to affect which parties are in the coalition since Netanyahu will not want to welcome Obama to Israel without a center or left party included in the government.
I get why all of this makes sense on its face, but I disagree with the premise. Of course Obama cares about the peace process and assigns a large degree of importance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and without question it will be a topic of conversation between Obama and Netanyahu and will be part of whatever public comments Obama makes while there. It would be bizarre for Obama to show up and not try to create some pressure on both sides to resume negotiations. But there are a few reasons to think that this trip is not intended to be a big diplomatic push over and above whatever else the administration is currently doing on the peace process front.
First, the White House said yesterday that the trip is not going to include a rollout of any specific peace proposals. That means no roadmap, no offer to host a summit, no calls for settlement freezes, or any other approaches that we have seen in the past by this or other administrations. Second, the U.S. has not coordinated this trip with any European countries, which is strange given EU efforts to convince the administration to reinsert itself into the peace process and the reports that Britain, France, and Germany are planning on making a big push on this issue now that Israeli elections are over. Third, a presidential visit to Israel does not automatically mean pressure on the Israeli government over the Palestinians, as there was little pressure placed when President Bush went to Israel in 2008 despite Ehud Olmert being more receptive to such an approach.
As Brent Sasley pointed out yesterday, there are lots of reasons for Obama to be going to Israel, although I disagree with Brent (which is rare) about Iran, and I think that this trip is much more about foreign policy issues than domestic politics (which is even more rare for me). Obama’s travels are going to take him to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel; if that isn’t a lineup that indicates the focus will be on coordinating strategy to deal with Iran, then I don’t know what is. Now that both Obama and Netanyahu have been returned to office and both clearly have their eyes on Tehran, I think that Obama’s visit to Israel is about security issues – Iran, Syria, etc. – first and foremost. That John Kerry is going to Israel before Obama’s trip reinforces that for me, since Kerry’s visit will likely be focused on the peace process while Obama’s visit will be geared toward other things. And of course, the possibility exists that Obama is going simply because he promised he would, as Haviv Rettig Gur reminded everyone yesterday.
Finally, on the coalition politics issue, I don’t buy the argument that Obama’s visit will affect the coalition one way or the other. Once the trip was announced, all leverage in that area was gone. Bibi could put together the most rightwing coalition imaginable at this point, and it won’t alter the fact that Obama is going to Israel come hell or high-water. I don’t quite get the argument that Netanyahu won’t dare greet Obama without a center-left component in his government, or that a three day visit somehow creates such enormous pressure that an entire coalition designed to theoretically serve for five years has to be shaped around three days.
Furthermore, there is a real possibility that Netanyahu won’t form a coalition until after Obama has come and gone, in which case all of this speculation is moot. [As Chemi Shalev has helpfully pointed out in the comments below, the deadline for Bibi to form a coalition is March 16 – ed.] Let’s also not forget that Netanyahu went out of his way just this morning to reiterate that his policy on settlements has not changed. Obama coming to Israel is a new wrinkle, but if Netanyahu were not going to bend to internal and external pressure to jumpstart the peace process, I don’t think Obama’s visit would alter his calculations.
To be clear, I am sure that Obama will talk about the peace process, and I am also sure that Netanyahu will not embarrass Obama on Israeli soil so he will likely make some token concessions or promises. I do not think that this trip changes the entire thrust of the government’s policy or makeup though, and I do not think it means we are about to get a real life version of the fictional Bartlet peace plan from the second to last season of the West Wing. It was always assumed that Kerry was going to be more interested in the peace process during the second term than Obama was until there was some real movement, and I haven’t seen anything over the last two days to make me think that assumption is incorrect.