Josh Rogin
Foreign Policy (Opinion)
February 7, 2013 - 1:00am

U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Israel next month for the first time in his presidency, but few are expecting him to make a substantive push for real progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney downplayed the possibility that Obama will bring on his March 20 trip any plans that would be meant to form the framework for a resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Carney framed the visit as a chance for the Obama administration to reset relations with the Israeli leadership after an often-contentious set of interactions over the last four years.

"This is trip the president looks forward to making; that is timed, in part, because we have here obviously a second term for the president, a new administration and a new government in Israel, and that's an opportune time for a visit like this; that is not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals," Carney said. "I'm sure that any time the president and prime minister have a discussion and certainly any time the president has a discussion with leaders of the Palestinian Authority, that those issues are raised. But that is not the purpose of this visit."

Carney said Obama will also visit the West Bank and Jordan. Israeli media has reported the trip will also include stops in Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, but Carney said those reports were false.

Multiple sources at the State Department said that Secretary of State John Kerry is planning to visit Israel ahead of Obama's visit as part of his first multi-nation overseas voyage in his new post. No final schedule has yet been decided for Kerry's travel, but already regional experts are warning about the risk of Kerry taking such a high-profile trip to Israel so early in his tenure.

"Even though his own travel plans were slightly upstaged by the president's announcement of a trip to Israel in March, John Kerry is already planning his first Middle East junket," former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller wrote in a New Republic essay entitled, "Chill Out, John Kerry."

Miller urged Kerry not to try to relaunch negotiations, not to push either side into doing things they aren't ready for, not to be "breathless" in talking up the possibilities of peace, and to organize his own Middle East team before engaging international parties.

"And above all, Mr. Secretary, don't raise expectations now. You'll just end up spending the next few years walking them back," Miller wrote.

Former Congressman Robert Wexler, now the now the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told The Cable that Obama's trip will be about celebrating the totality of the U.S.-Israel relationship, with specific focuses on U.S.-Israel security cooperation and the shared threat of an Iran moving toward building a nuclear weapon.

"I don't think it would be prudent to raise expectations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Wexler said. "The trip is about Israeli security in the face of Iran's nuclear program and in the context of the violence and conflict in Syria. Certainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an important part of that, but  I don't think it would be accurate to highlight the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over other aspects of the relationship."

The trip does have the potential to increase Obama's credibility by showing a united U.S.-Israeli front ahead of a new round of talks between the P5+1 countries and Iran, which are scheduled to take place shortly after Obama's Middle East trip, Wexler said.

Obama will also use the trip to speak directly to the Israeli people, Wexler said, which could go a long way toward reassuring Israelis that the relationship is strong, even if the personal relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn't warm.

"I would be surprised if the president did not make an address to the Knesset or some other public address. It would be a missed opportunity if he did not speak directly to the Israeli people," he said. "The Israeli people are thirsty for this type of direct interaction and this would certainly benefit the relationship."

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the trip will stand in stark contrast to Obama's first term Middle East Trip, when he visited Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, where he delivered his famous 2009 speech aimed at repairing America's relationship with the Muslim world.

"It's a good idea to have Israel be the anchor of this first big visit because it does suggest that the president will approach the second term having learned a painful lesson from the first term: how important it is from the outset to have a direct relationship with the public of Israel," he said. "In 2009, the objective was to create a new relationship with Muslims. This had very unfortunate but entirely predictable result of raising doubts about the U.S.-Israel relations, which hurts Israeli deterrence and undermines American influence in the region."

Obama isn't likely to arrive in Israel with any blueprint for a new peace process, but that's OK, Satloff said, because so long as the expectations are low, any positive discussion on resuming the path to peace can be framed as a win.

"Obama is going to Israel early enough in his second term so that there aren't undue expectations on the peace process. The situation is so poor that if the president injects even greater confidence in the possibility of new diplomacy, that would be a success," he said.

Obama and Netanyahu are stuck with each other, so they might as well smile for the cameras and see what they can do together, Satloff said.

"However much these two leaders don't favor the other, there's a certain amount of respect for leaders who get themselves reelected," he said. "They are going to be with each other and they recognize that reality."


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