No matter how hard he tries, President Obama cannot lower expectations surrounding his visit to Israel.
Yes, we'll hear a great deal about how this is only—as American Ambassador Dan Shapiro put it—about sending a clear message "to the Israeli nation, to neighboring countries, and to the American nation, regarding the strong and deep connection between the two countries," as if clear isn't crystal by now, especially to Palestinians. And, yes, Obama and Netanyahu have personal tensions to alleviate, so that, once the president gets here, both men will go through the motions, like the president and John Boehner pretending to overlook the other's stiffer-than-usual golf swing.
But it's not personal. It's business. The president is walking into a land of forlorn hopes, which in spite of everyone's better judgment have been rekindled by his reelection. If he endeavors to keep hope dead, something bad will begin to happen. He doesn't have the luxury of doing no harm with empty platitudes.
As Sam Bahour and I argued recently in the New York Times, two-thirds of Israelis would support a two-state agreement, but more than half of even left-of-center Israelis said Mr. Abbas "could not reach binding decisions to end the conflict." At the same time, 52 percent of Palestinians favor a two-state resolution (a drop from three-quarters in 2006, before two Israeli clashes over Gaza), but two-thirds judged the chance of a fully functional Palestinian state in the next five years to be "low or nonexistent."
Translation? Moderates on both sides still want to see the peace process renewed, but they are being shrunk by a status quo that's explosive. The settlement project continues, Hamas gains in prestige, and the only way to see beyond a grinding fight to the finish is an American-sponsored peace process in which, finally, the president can be expected to put a thumb on the scales to outweigh the thumbs of Netanyahu's political allies.
Just anticipating Obama in Jerusalem is spooking Israeli politics. You do the math: Netanyahu could, if he wanted to, build a tight, rightist coalition very much like the one he had for the past four years, albiet with 61 seats—63 if you include Shaul Mofaz—not the 65 he had before. (Menachem Begin had 61 in 1981.) But Netanyahu, by all accounts, is simply afraid of sitting in a room with Obama and telling him that settlements cannot be scaled back, or Jerusalem cannot be discussed, because this will cause Moshe Feiglin or Naftali Bennett to pull the plug on his government. Like it or not, Obama is a kind of coalition partner, too. All expect Netanyahu to concede just about anything to get Yair Lapid into the coalition, just to prove he has a proxy for U.S. interests and sensibilities.
For his part, it is true, Lapid seems more focused on "equality of burden-sharing" than on peace negotiations, code for getting haredim into the labor force and the army; he knows his votes came from a revolution of the employed, taxed and conscripted against spongers. But even if some of Lapid's voters consider all peace efforts naive—that we don't have a partner, yada, yada—the settlement project persists and, to most of Lapid's voters, settlers feel as burdensome as haredim. Lapid's "moderation" may be little more than an incipiently guilty conscience—you know, the prospect of having to defend settler fanaticism to the world—yet nobody inflames this conscience more than Obama 2.0.
For all Israelis, now, Obama may be Mr. President-ally, but he also embodies the hybridity of globalist forces, as well as skepticism regarding Zionist special pleading. Everybody supposes he'll give everything for Sderot, nothing for Tapuach—that unlike Reagan and Bush, he's smart enough to know the difference. Unlike Obama 1.0, however, Obama 2.0 is strong enough to enforce the difference.
The Israeli press, certainly, assumes Obama will get to the Palestinians sometime after his visit to Yad Vashem, just like he got to taxes with Boehner sometime after the 15th hole. Yesterday morning, "informed sources" told Israeli radio correspondents that Obama will "seek assurances" from Netanyahu that Obama will be able to pursue negotiations, public and otherwise, with Iran without "military surprises" from Israel. In a heartbeat, Arye Golan shifted to Palestine, wondering aloud whether, by conceding a non-strike on Iran, Netanyahu might deserve less pressure on curtailing settlers—as perfect an example of the narcissism of the Israeli "consensus" as you're likely to hear. (Presumably, the reward for not dragging the U.S. into a precipitous regional war should be less pressure on ending what the region considers an ongoing causus belli.)
The point is, Obama is expected to provide some kind of political horizon, which means public gestures for Palestinian statehood and against the settlement project. He cannot appear cavalier about this expectation. If the next four years will seem continuous with the last four, tempers will flare, especially in Palestine, and violence will come to seem inevitable. All the wrong people on both sides will be saying "I told you so."
Okay, Obama will have to make the rounds with Netanyahu at the Knesset, and speak reassuringly about Israeli security. But he should also do what Joe Biden did: fill an auditorium at Tel Aviv University. Or, if security arrangements can be worked out, fill Rabin Square, as Mayor Ron Huldai has asked. There, he should lay out, albeit in broad terms, principles for a two-state deal: the 1967 borders with land swaps, two capitals in an undivided Jerusalem, security arrangements buttressed by American monitors and bilateral defense agreements, and a refugee solution consistent with the modalities worked through at Taba and in the Olmert-Abbas talks. And then he should count the ovations and watch them be transformed into new political facts.
A speech of this kind along with a presidential visit to Ramallah—where officials will receive him as representatives of an internationally recognized state—will finally provide the region what it's needed all along: a way for the sides to trust in the future without having to trust one another, and a process European countries can rally to. In any case, Obama cannot leave the region the same place it was before he came. History may bend toward justice but hopelessness bends it back.