President Barack Obama is about to become the fifth U.S. president to visit Israel. His predecessor, George W. Bush visited twice, both during the final year of his presidency. Before him, Bill Clinton visited during his second, third, fourth, and sixth years. Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter both visited once. Obama will visit the country on March 20. According to White House spokesperson Jay Carney, the Israel-Palestine peace process is not the purpose of this trip, and while it will be discussed, major breakthroughs are not expected. The importance of this trip instead rests on resetting the infamously cool relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu.
While the U.S. and Israel have remained close allies throughout the Obama administration, the relationship between the two leaders has been largely dysfunctional. From the beginning, Obama publicly asked the Israeli government to halt the building of settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and went so far as to declare the settlements “illegitimate.” The Obama administration’s public criticism of settlements being built in E-1 and his recent appointment of Chuck Hagel, known for his criticism of Israel, to Secretary of Defense have certainly not gone in lockstep with the prime minister’s rhetoric. Netanhayu on the other hand is largely understood as being responsible for much of the animosity between the two, with his most recent jabs being his just-short-of public support for Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the 2012 elections, and a bellicose speech at the UN in which he demanded the drawing of a red line in regards to the Iranian nuclear program.
Obama will arrive in Israel having come out on top of the conflict while Netanyahu’s victory in the recent elections was so narrow that he will most likely be forming a coalition government in the upcoming weeks. That said, the visit is not necessarily to demand apologies, but to stress the fact that U.S. support and cooperation is crucial to restarting the peace process and resolving the Iranian nuclear issue.
There is good reason to believe this, especially in the case of the Palestinians. Their situation is not the same as it was before the U.S. election, given their recent upgrade to non-member state status at the UN. For one, the results of the vote were telling, with only nine states voting against, and an overwhelming majority voting for the upgraded status. This upgrade, while not full membership, potentially allows for Palestine to sign and ratify the Rome Statute, making it a member of the International Criminal Court.
This is particularly important in light of a recent UN report that says the settlements in the West Bank are serious violations of international law that could warrant a case at the ICC. The heightened recognition of the Palestinians is palpable in the rumors of a possible meeting in Jordan between Obama, Netanyahu, and Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, though the Palestinian Authority claims they haven’t been informed of any such meeting yet. The political situation for Palestinians on the ground has shown signs of change as well. The Palestinian Election Commission has begun updating its voter lists in the West Bank and in Gaza, a major step toward elections that may lead to reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and new momentum for Palestinian independence. In dealing with the Palestinians, it seems clear that the course Netanhayu had set is going to encounter new obstacles, increasing the need for assistance from Washington.
As for Iran, the situation remains difficult, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently refusing direct talks with U.S., though it appears six nation talks with Iran, one of which is the U.S., will begin in late February. While the role of the U.S. in dealing with Iran appears limited, what the past elections in the U.S. and Israel have shown is that people in both countries are sceptical of Netanyahu’s hard line stance toward the Iran and before any red line is drawn, Iran will likely face more sanctions and attempts at diplomacy. What Obama’s visit turns on then is not apology, but a recognition of the state of world politics and a push for cooperation — something both the U.S. and Israel need if they are going to deal with these issues as allies.