Iran is accelerating its nuclear program. Syria’s gruesome civil war is beginning to bleed across its borders. Two years after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt’s political transition is, at best, dicey. And yet according to deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, “more important” than all of that “in some respects” is that President Obama take this opportunity to “speak directly to the Israeli people.’’
I get the logic of whoever dreamed up the president’s trip to Israel this week: Send Obama to reassure the Israelis he’s got their back on Iran. Demonstrate he doesn’t prefer the Arabs—an impression left in his first term when he visited Cairo but didn’t stop by Tel Aviv. Pay his respects at the graves of Israel’s fallen and acknowledge the historical artifacts that show Jews’ ties to the land. Let them know he really admires their technological prowess. Then maybe Israelis will feel more inclined to make peace with the Palestinians knowing the relationship with their most important ally is solid.
But this trip—the timing and the script—makes no sense. And even more than simply being a big waste of Obama’s time at a moment when he has little time to waste, it’s burning crucial American political capital that ought to be reserved for moments that truly warrant it.
The White House says the president is going to hear out what the newly appointed Israeli government has planned. Here’s a quick preview: Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon wants to bomb Iran and Housing Minister Uri Ariel wants to build new settlements. If Obama wants to talk about drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israel Defense Forces or the price of apartments in Tel Aviv, he’ll find an audience. Those relatively marginal issues are what dominated Israel’s recent election, not the future with the Palestinians.
Three years ago, Vice President Joe Biden went to Israel tasked with a similar mission—reassure Israelis that Obama loves them. Biden hit all the right notes, saying that the bond between Israel and the United States was “unshakeable” and “unbreakable” so many times that we reporters who covered that trip started keeping a running tally. Then as the vice-presidential motorcade was leaving the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, news that Israel’s Interior Ministry had authorized 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem destroyed what should have been a pure celebration of American-Israeli ties. Biden returned to his hotel to consult with the White House on what to say, leaving Netanyahu waiting awkwardly at his residence for an hour and a half for dinner. When Biden arrived, he issued an unprecedented rebuke that embarrassed the Israeli prime minister as they sat down to eat.
American-Israeli ties remained sour. Two months after Biden’s visit, Obama refused to hold a photo op with Netanyahu when he visited the White House. The next year, when the president agreed to share the stage with Israel’s prime minister, Netanyahu lectured him before the cameras in the Oval Office on why Obama’s (hardly original) idea that the 1967 borders could be a baseline for peace negotiations with the Palestinians was bunk. In 2012, Netanyahu—frustrated that he couldn’t goad Obama into saying when the U.S. would bomb Iran—publicly suggested the president had no “moral right” to stop Israel from taking action itself. All the while, Netanyahu, over the past few years, did nothing to further peace with the Palestinians. He floated via surrogates that he thought Obama was naïve on the Middle East. And he left the strong impression last year that he was rooting for Mitt Romney to win the U.S. presidential election.