President Obama's decision to visit Israel is a recognition that he was wrong not to visit at the beginning of his first term. It is also demonstrates how the strategy that informed his initial decision was a mistake.
Back then, Obama thought that the U.S. needed to focus on improving relations with the Muslim world. He thought that President Bush had severely damaged this relationship by being too close to Israel. He also believed that forging ahead with a permanent peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians was the key to forwarding America's interests in the Middle East, and that the Netanyahu government was the main obstacle to achieving this objective.
The view from the White House has changed, but not because the president has some new appreciation for Prime Minister Netanyahu. Their relationship remains strained by substantive differences, as well as by other factors. The president also learned that the Palestinians and the Arab states were every bit as obstinate as Netanyahu. As the President admitted to Time Magazine a year after being in office, peace was a lot harder to achieve than he realized.
Aside from this, other events have made clear that the Middle East does not revolve around settlements and the Palestinians. Today's agenda focuses on preventing Iran from going nuclear, preventing Syrian chemical weapons from falling into the wrong hands, and preventing the collapse of the Egyptian-Israeli peace—as it comes under threat from the rise of anti-Semitic Islamists in Egypt. On all these issues, the United States and Israel share core common interests. So one reason to visit Israel now is to make sure that these common interests translate into coordinated policies. The fact that the president has announced his visit before any progress in the peace process has been secured, and without a peace plan of his own, appears to suggest that he understands these realities.
But what about the peace process?
Clearly, the administration continues to believe it is important, and it would like to progress. Clearly, the president remains frustrated by the expansion of Israeli settlements. The president is correct on both of these issues, and his visit provides an opportunity to deal with them by speaking directly to the Israeli people.
As the election results demonstrate, Israelis have not turned to the ideological right, despite the strength of these forces within Netanyahu's own party. Middle Israel is willing, in principle, to compromise on settlements. But it is not focused on the issue. Instead, it is focused on security—especially Iran—and domestic issues.
Since the Second Lebanon War, Israelis have identified security, rather than peace process diplomacy, as their top priority. And nothing is viewed as more important in terms of security than Iran, which, aside from its nuclear program, supplies the rockets that have bombarded Israel from Lebanon and Gaza. Also since then, Israelis have consistently viewed Netanyahu as the best candidate for handling security and for serving as prime minister. Indeed, Netanyahu polls consistently double the next contender on these issues. The primary reason why Israelis voted for Yesh Atid’s domestic agenda was that they were already certain that Netanyahu would be prime minister and that consequently their security preferences were already taken care of. Hence they felt able to flag up domestic issues. Either way, the long-term term dangers of settlement expansion simply do not register for Israelis as a short-term priority.
But this is an equation that an American president can help change, because the Israeli public understands the importance of Israel's relationship with America.
Yet in order for his message to be effective, before he speaks about settlements, the president must demonstrate to Israelis that he truly understands their situation, and that he is a truly reliable ally. American Jews and many in Israeli security establishment might believe this, but the Israeli public remains to be convinced. The first act on the president’s agenda must be to drive straight to Sederot, the bomb-shelter capital of the world. From there he needs to explain to Israelis that he gets it.
He gets that Hamas is trying to undermine Israeli morale by generating a situation whereby Israelis have to live under constant rocket fire. But he needs to make clear that this is completely unacceptable.
He gets that Iran must be stopped by force if necessary. The appointment of Hagel and Kerry points to a presidential preference for diplomacy with Iran. So the more that Israelis believe that the president is truly committed to nuclear prevention, the more willing they will be to respond to American requests to be helpful on the Palestinian front and on settlements, and the more the ideological Right will be exposed as a marginal element that threatens Netanyahu's standing within the mainstream public.
Finally, the President also needs to demonstrate that he gets why Israelis have turned away from territorial withdrawals. After all, what Israel got in return for its withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza were thousands of rockets targeting its civilians. He needs to make clear that he, unlike the Europeans, recognizes that Israel needs to get something in return for territory, and that will involve major concessions from the Palestinians on issues like security and refugees—concessions they have thusfar proved unwilling to make.
In other words, the way to open Israeli ears is to progress on settlements and the peace process is to make clear that the U.S. understands that these issues, while important, are part of a bigger Middle Eastern picture in which the U.S. and Israel are on the same side. And that in order to advance on those common interests, the U.S. needs Israel to do its part, as well.