The announcement yesterday that Barack Obama would travel to Israel this spring may have surprised some people. The question, of course, is, What for? While the new secretary of State John Kerry has opened up the possibility of pressing the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, making actual progress remains unlikely. That raises the question of why, exactly, Kerry's boss—Obama—would travel to Israel with a plan to return with nothing in hand. That would reduce things to little more than a photo opportunity. Another possibility that's been not infrequently raised is that Obama wants to influence Israel's coalition building. Benjamin Netanyahu was weakened by the recent elections, but emerged victorious and has been tasked with forming a new government by March 16—only four days before some Israeli reports said Obama would visit. Last year, many observers thought Netanyahu was trying to intervene in American elections, just one point of tension between the two leaders. Perhaps now Obama is returning the favor; he certainly must bristle at the prospect of dealing with a Netanyahu coalition even further to the right.
But there's another possibility: it might be that the trip isn't about coalition building or the peace process at all, but about that other issue that has bedeviled Obama's relationship with Netanyahu: Iran. That was half of former Obama adviser Dennis Ross's message in his appearance on MSNBC today. While repeating a line he'd given to the Times that the trip was an opportunity to "connect with the Israeli public," Ross expanded his comments on cable news to include Iran: "[C]onnecting with the Israeli public is a good thing at this point, particularly when you're talking about peace or you're talking about Iran," he said. The goal, he said, was for Obama to show Israelis that he's "quite serious" about Iran. But it's not clear that even a focus on Iran could yield any benefits: the governments seem to remain at odds about how to deal with Iran. Obama, if a hint in his second inaugural address is to be believed, still favors diplomacy to end the nuclear standoff with the regime in Iran, even recently offering one-on-one talks. Netanyahu has been cool on diplomacy in the past, and said recently that his "next government’s primary objective will be to stop the weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program." Netanyahu reportedly told a visiting delegation of Americans last month that 2013 will be a decisive year, and that if Iran doesn't back down, the U.S. will need to attack it's nuclear facilities. Some analysts are positing that an apparent Israeli strike inside Syria could be a harbinger of Israel going it alone in Iran, too.
Those differences are pretty stark. If Ross is right that Obama will show Israelis he's "serious" about Iran, that could mean a more hawkish statement on the subject than we've come to expect from the President. But even while making such public pronouncements, Obama could be going to cool Israel's jets about a potential attack. After all, Iran and world powers just announced another round of talks slated for late February. Obama's trip could be, as Al Monitor's Laura Rozen put it, an "opportunity to try to reach out to Israeli leaders and the public before potential new tensions strain the alliance, including over the timeline for diplomacy with Iran." In his last term, Obama frequently dispatched deputies to reassure Israel and warn against rash action like a unilateral strike: he could be taking this burden upon himself, perhaps a sign that the U.S. plans to make a serious bid at diplomacy that will include broader concessions to the Iranians than earlier offered. It's worth noting that this isn't mutually exclusive with Netanyahu's urgency to do something in 2013—just like it was urgent to do something in 2012, and 2011, and so on—except that now various non-Bibi-aligned analysts agree Iran is getting perilously close to the nuclear threshold. One thing's for sure: this is going to be an interesting trip.