Now that the White House has made clear that U.S. President Barack Obama’s March 20 visit to Israel is on, no matter the outcome of coalition negotiations in Israel, it is useful to look at what the president might accomplish on his visit.
Whether or not a new government has been formed, the most important aspect of Obama’s visit is, in my view, what he says to the people of Israel and how he is heard by them.
In Obama's first two years in office, there was a lot of negativity toward the president among the Israeli public. One poll during his second year even put the president’s rating with the Israeli public as low as 4 percent approval. Over time, things got significantly better, but a trust gap remained.
Where did this come from? Mostly it arose from a combination at the outset of Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world in his June 2009 Cairo speech, his failure to follow that up with a reassuring trip to Israel, his initiative that focused on Israeli settlements as the core problem in the conflict and comments by the president about how neither side had taken critical steps toward peace, which rang hollow with an Israeli public that had seen no positive results from Ehud Barak’s Camp David offer, Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal and Ehud Olmert’s Annapolis proposal.
As the president’s first term moved forward, things improved, particularly because of two strong speeches by the president at the United Nations and the intensified, high-level military-security relationship between the two countries.
Now the trust gap is not as great as it was three years ago. But it’s still there. This visit to Israel in itself should help. What happens on this visit will be even more important.
To address this gap, I think there are two things the president should do to reassure the people of Israel.
First, he must convince the Israeli public that his pledge that the United States “will have Israel’s back” on the Iran issue is steadfast.
Obama has said it before, but he needs to reiterate that American policy is to prevent Iran from going nuclear, not to contain a nuclear Iran. In that regard he should spell out his path to achieve the goal, knowing there is a general recognition in Israel that time is running out.
If diplomacy comes first, what is the minimum that must be achieved? And if diplomacy fails, he must project a sense of urgency to employ tougher measures - either stronger sanctions or even a military option. The Israeli public has to believe when the president leaves that Israel will not be left alone holding the bag for the rest of the world as to whether or not Iran becomes a nuclear power.
More broadly, Obama can accomplish a great deal if the public in Israel is convinced that the special relationship between the United States and Israel is secure in his White House. Showing understanding for Israel’s unique situation in the Middle East and specifically crediting the many efforts Israel has made to achieve peace in the region would go a long way toward that goal. It is what most Israelis believe.
He can talk about the fact that Israel has historically been the lone democracy in a sea of authoritarian regimes. He can talk about how today, even as the Arab Spring offered hope for change in the Arab world, the gap between a democratic Israel and an Arab world struggling to create democracies but falling into the trap of Islamic extremism remains as stark as ever.
And he can point to the various steps Israel has taken over the years to end the conflict, whether at Camp David, the Gaza withdrawal or during the Annapolis process. A recognition that historically Israel has always sought to live in peace with its neighbors and more recently to work toward a two-state solution would be welcome.
In this regard, the president could reference some of the extreme Arab and Muslim efforts to isolate and denigrate Israel, the most recent, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments calling Zionism a crime against humanity and equating it with anti-Semitism, fascism and Islamophobia.
In the context of these reassurances, in effect, the diminution of the trust gap, the president would have an Israeli public more willing to hear his belief that progress toward peace should be in the interest of both Israelis and Palestinians. He could urge both sides to take some risks, knowing that the United States will be there as a partner. And he can call on both sides to work harder at understanding and accepting the narrative of the other as the best way to begin to melt away the hostility that has built over many years.
In all these things, he should make clear that both sides have obligations, both sides have to compromise; both sides have to empathize with the narrative of the other.
And then Obama should conclude: “As much as both sides have to do, I know very well that so many times over the years it is Israel that has sought peace, it is Israel that has been willing to compromise, it is Israel that has recognized there is a legitimate Palestinian narrative alongside the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.”