Why Obama’s Trip to Israel Is One Big Mistake

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March 19 2013 3:20 PM

Why Obama’s Israel Trip Is One Big Mistake

Netanyahu insults the president, backed Romney, and hasn’t moved the peace process. No White House should reward behavior like that, not even from an ally.

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In spite of all this, the president is headed to Tel Aviv. The anti-Obama peace-process skeptics can’t help but gloat. As Barry Rubin, a conservative, pro-Israel American pundit put it on his Facebook page: “I think we have just won a huge victory … Obama has admitted defeat on trying to bully, manipulate, or pressure Israel.”

The White House doesn’t want this trip to be about Netanyahu or his new government. That’s why Obama will address Israeli college students in a convention hall rather than speak to politicians in the Knesset. But when it comes to how this trip will be perceived in Israel, it will be all about Netanyahu and his political fortunes. Netanyahu will be seen as the victor in his battle with Obama, rewarded not only for defying—or standing strongly against, depending on one’s political perspective—an American president. And Netanyahu will learn one powerful lesson from Obama’s visit: I don’t have to do anything on the Palestinian issue. I can continue to expand settlements, focus solely on Iran, and insult the U.S. president, and he will still come and thank me with a two-day dog-and-pony show.

It’s clear why the White House wants to avoid the thorny Israeli-Palestinian disputes of Jerusalem, settlements, and refugees. Past presidents have expended enormous time and energy on the matter and failed miserably. The last time Obama tried to articulate some guiding principles on borders, he got shouted down by Bibi. The United States “will always continue to be engaged in this process in terms of trying to move it forward,’’ Rhodes told reporters in a pretrip briefing that illustrated just how radically Obama has scaled back his ambitions since September 2010, when he said he thought peace could be achieved within a year.

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So why is Obama going? Is it really an attempt at “repairing relations with America’s primary Middle East ally” as the Washington Post’s Scott Wilson wrote? Or as Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in a column for Bloomberg, to reintroduce himself to Israelis and convey to them that he understands their situation? Perhaps. But if it is, then this is truly a waste of time. Just as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel—whose nomination was held up by those who worried he wasn’t pro-Israel enough—wasn’t running for Israeli defense minister, Obama isn’t running for Israeli office (or any office for that matter). And anyone who knows Israelis and their current mindset on the Palestinians (Palestinians, who?) knows that a little ego stroking isn’t going to get that population behind a peace deal.

That doesn’t mean the trip couldn’t do some good. While the president is there ostensibly repairing the relationship with Israelis who've felt jilted, Obama may be sending an important signal to Tehran. The message: Just because I can’t stand Bibi doesn’t mean I won’t stand with him in preventing you from getting a nuclear weapon.

Since Obama is making the 12-hour flight, there’s one important thing he can accomplish if he wants to achieve something beyond simply making Israelis feel good. When he delivers his speech in Jerusalem on Thursday, he can remind Israelis that if they want their nation to be a nation like all others—one with internationally accepted borders, no longer targeted by divestment campaigns, and not facing a possible third Intifada—they need to stop saying they have no partner and make peace with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before it is too late. And if they can do that, he looks forward to coming back a second time as president—when they have a peace deal to sign.

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