Obama Israel Trip: What to Watch Out For When the President Heads to the Middle East

For the first time since his election campaign in 2008, President Obama will be traveling to Israel this spring. Aside from failing to visit Israel all throughout his first term, the President has received widespread criticism for his policies toward the nation from many of her American supporters. In comparison to his predecessors, Obama has been viewed by these pro-Israel Americans as troublingly less adamant and vocal about his support for Israel. However, these criticisms may, in fact, point out the very stance that will enable the President to facilitate bring the long -stalled peace process.

The President’s announcement comes at a time of particularly heightened tension between Israel and the Palestinians. With the ongoing construction of settlements in Judea and Samaria, the recent rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel, the Palestinian efforts to receive statehood recognition in the UN, and the widely publicized hunger strikes of Palestinians in Israeli prisons, the two parties seem to be on the brink of yet another inevitable catastrophe. Amidst all of this conflict, the prospect of direct negotiations seems remote, at best, and peace? Dare to dream.

So what can President Obama do? As many top officials have stated, the President will not be bringing a path to peace with him to Israel, and he has no intention of asserting a dominant position in the negotiations process. Much in line with the characterization of the President by his pro-Israel critics, Obama intends to spend most of his visit listening to each side and facilitating the process. While this may be troubling for some who wish to see the President take a more assertive stance, it may be his perceived centrality (not to be confused with neutrality) that will enable him to calm the growing antagonism just enough to bring the two groups to the table.

For many Israelis, the announcement of President Obama’s trip was met with welcoming remarks, and a general appreciation for the role he intends to play in facilitating a peace process. However, at the forefront of Israeli concern is the impending threat posed by Iran’s growing nuclear program. As Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren explained, talks between Netanyahu and Obama will necessarily be focused on Iran, which has in the past been a disputed issue between the two leaders.

In the meantime, as we await the President’s trip, we can only hope that further tensions do not arise between Israel and the Palestinians, and that the issue of a nuclear Iran remains at bay. Although his visit will not bring about an immediate resolution, Obama’s role in the Middle East as a facilitator of negotiations may, in fact, be the first step towards achieving a peaceful future. More so than the direct effects of his trip, the importance of Obama’s visit will be in demonstrating the role he intends to play in the peace process. Even if the President’s presence brings nothing more than convening the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, his trip will mark a major stride in the prospect of peace, and illustrate the effectiveness of his controversially, less-active approach.