Three Reasons Obama Is Traveling to Israel

President Obama heads next week to Israel, with a side trip to the West Bank and an overnight visit to Jordan. He will not be going to oversee peace negotiations, nor will he be bringing a specific peace plan with him. Instead, he's going to reintroduce himself to the region. Specifically, he's going to speak directly to the Israeli people, over the head, if necessary, of the prime minister, with whom he generally sees not eye-to-eye.

(Which is not to say their relationship is all contention: On the matter of Iran, Obama was actually quite appreciative last September when Netanyahu suggested, at the United Nations, that he would cease contemplating a preventive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities until well after the American election. In a phone call shortly after that speech, Obama thanked Netanyahu for giving him "time and space" on the nuclear issue. On the matter of settlements, and the continued occupation of much of the West Bank, Obama has repeatedly expressed his frustration with what he might term -- and I would term -- Netanyahu's myopia on the subject).

There are several reasons Obama is going now to Israel:
1) The president is said to have grown tired, during the campaign last year, of hearing the question, "Why haven't you visited Israel yet?" Of course, many presidents did not visit Israel while president, and some had gone late in their term. Obama is held to a bit of a double-standard on this question -- it was a Republican strategy to suggest to Jewish voters, in particular, that he was hostile to the Jewish state -- and he has seemed annoyed, at times, when his commitment to Israel is questioned. Late last year, after he won reelection, he suggested, in a White House meeting, that he make Israel an early stop in his 2nd-term foreign travels, in part to quiet this meme.

2) During the first term, Administration thinking held that there was no point in sending the President to meet with Israelis and Palestinians on their home turf unless there was real progress in negotiations. Last year, this thinking shifted: Visiting the region while it was relatively quiet, without carrying a specific political agenda, grew to seem like a smart idea, in particular because many Israelis had grown suspicious of his intentions and would therefore benefit from direct exposure to the man, rather than his caricature. The caricature developed in part  because they were told by the Sheldon Adelsons of the world (and more subtly, by Netanyahu himself) not to trust him. This also happened because the President had created the impression, in his famous Cairo speech to the Muslim world in 2009, that he didn't fully understand the rationale for Israel's existence.  In my Bloomberg View column this week, I discuss this speech, the fallout from which illustrates, if nothing else, how complicated it is for a president to navigate the Middle East:

In the speech he gave there, which the White House titled, "A New Beginning," Obama made a powerful statement in support of the Palestinian cause: "The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable," he said. "America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own."

Notably, he didn't avoid the touchy subject of the U.S. bond with Israel, which he called "unbreakable." He said this knowing that such a statement would not fill his Muslim audience with joy. "Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust," Obama said, by way of explaining U.S. support for the Jewish state. "Six million Jews were killed -- more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant and it is hateful."

Obama's statement came at a moment when many Israelis believed he was preparing to dismantle the special relationship between his country and theirs. His aides hoped his words would serve to allay Jewish fears of a new president whose middle name is Hussein.

It didn't work as planned. Why, you ask? Why would a moving declaration of sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust -- and a robust denunciation of Holocaust denial -- alienate Israelis, and many of their friends in the U.S.? Well, welcome to the Middle East, where every tribe and creed has its own code, and mastery of these codes doesn't come easy....

How did Obama leave this impression? At home, this view was cultivated partly by cynical Republicans who have been eager to turn support for Israel into a partisan issue.

With Israelis, it's more complicated. The Cairo speech had a chilling effect because, to Israelis, the Holocaust alone doesn't justify the existence of their state. "The Holocaust doesn't explain why we're here," said Yossi Klein Halevii, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. "The Holocaust explains why we fight as fiercely as we do to stay here, but it doesn't explain our rootedness."

In Cairo, Halevi said, Obama failed to acknowledge "Jewish indigenousness in the region," the idea that history -- the uninterrupted Jewish presence in the lands of ancient Israel for more than 3,000 years -- justifies the modern Jewish claim to a state there. "In Cairo, Obama was asking the Arab world to feel sorry for the Jews," he said, "and by doing so, he inadvertently played into the hands of those whose response is, 'Well, if there was a Holocaust, let the Germans pay for it, not the Arabs.' That's a reasonable response if you don't believe that Jews are from here."

The absence of Zionist thought in the speech was unhelpful, though not thematically inexplicable (after all, it was a speech meant to woo Muslims, not Jews). But Obama is clearly acquainted with the ideas that energized Jewish nationalism. During his first campaign for president, in 2008, I spoke to him at length about the Middle East, and he told me of learning Israel's story early in life, from a Jewish camp counselor who explained to him the "idea of preserving a culture when a people had been uprooted with the view of eventually returning home." Obama went on, "There was something so powerful and compelling for me, maybe because I was a kid who never entirely felt like he was rooted."

3) One other reason he's going, of course, is Iran. There's nothing like a face-to-face with Netanyahu to keep the prime minister onboard with Administration strategy. President Obama will reiterate to the prime minister something the prime minister doesn't quite believe: That the U.S. has Israel's back, as Obama has said repeatedly. Netanyahu will press the president specifics: At what point, he will ask, does Obama give up and move to consider a military solution to the Iranian nuclear program. Obama will argue that there is still plenty of time. They will not leave their meeting agreeing on all points, of course, but there's a greater chance Netanyahu will remain patient if Obama makes the case for patience in person, and on Netanyahu's turf. Netanyahu frets that Obama doesn't understand Israel's true security situation, and that he doesn't have a feel for Jewish history (we saw this worry evince itself most dramatically in Netanyahu's stunning, and stunningly inappropriate, Oval Office lecture). 

The conventional wisdom about this trip is that it won't accomplish much. But the upside potential for this trip is great: Israelis will be seeing someone who is actually a friend, and this will allow the friend, over time, to speak bluntly with Israelis about the direction of their country; and Netanyahu will get invaluable face-time with the only person who could truly, and semi-permanently, confront what the prime minister believes to be the most serious threat Israel faces.

I'll have more later on the Palestinian and Jordanian portions of the trip. But suffice it to say that another reason for this trip is that the President really wants to see Petra. And who can blame him?