Obama Israel Trip: What's Behind Obama's First Trip to Israel as President?

This post was co-written by Molly Tutt and Mark Donig.

Ever since the White House announced late last month that President Obama was planning to visit Israel for the first time since taking office, media speculation has run rampant with both the timing and the motivation of the president's trip. Why now? What are his goals?  What major news, ideas, or initiatives is he planning to bring from Washington to revive a dormant peace process or convince Israel to hold back from a strike on Iran?

Earlier this week, major U.S., Israeli, and international media descended upon Washington, D.C. for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)'s Policy Conference, looking for clues about the upcoming trip. By the convention's end, a variety of analyses had emerged, yet still no consensus has formed.

One analysis provided an outlook in which Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would use this trip as a means to show their support for one another despite public perceptions of a shaky relationship in the past. This involves a showing of goodwill gestures toward each other in order to demonstrate the closeness that exists between the two nations. The Jerusalem Post, for example, described the trip as "long on appreciation […] and short on public disagreements" between the two leaders and their countries. Ron Friedman of The Times of Israel also discussed measures that Netanyahu might make in order to strengthen relations between the two leaders, reporting a possible Israeli goodwill package vis-a-vis the Palestinians in anticipation for the president's visit. Included in that package would be the transfer of two small pieces of land as well as small arms ammunition to the Palestinians, among other actions.

Another media narrative argued that President Obama's primary reasoning behind the timing of his visit is to show that the United States and Israel present a united front against their shared national security threat, chief among them (though not exclusively) the Iranian nuclear threat. The Washington Post, for instance, reported that Vice President Joe Biden's Monday speech to the AIPAC crowd was intended to reinforce areas of commonality between the U.S. and Israel shared security concerns while sidelining any potential areas of tension regarding the peace process. Biden, the Post reported, sought "to play down years of tension between the Obama administration and the Israeli government over how best to pursue peace with the Palestinians, focusing his remarks to a powerful Israel-advocacy group on preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons."  

Other outlets, such as Reuterspointed to statements of solidarity that Biden offered, such as his assurance to the AIPAC audience that "President Obama is not bluffing," as evidence that President Obama would use his upcoming trip to "reassure Israel and its U.S. supporters" of Obama's commitment to Israel's security.

Finally, some reporters held a much more skeptical tone that either President Obama's trip, or those who spoke of it at the AIPAC conference, would carry any significant policy weight whatsoever. Generally, this sector of the media analyzed the timing of the President's upcoming trip to Israel through the prism of domestic American politics. "As pundits scratch their heads," wrote Haviv Gur in Times of Israel last month, "it may be worth recalling the most prosaic reason Obama might be making the trip: because he said he would." Gur was referring to promises from aides of the president to Jewish supporters that Obama would visit Israel early in his second term, should he win re-election. 

On Thursday, when a report surfaced from Israeli news outlets that the president would present a "general framework" for peace, Gur stuck to his guns, retorting in a new article that he received word from a "US source familiar with the White House's plans for the trip" that the report was "absolutely false." His reporting appears to fall in line with other recent articles suggesting that, instead of taking a proactive role in presenting a new peace plan to Israelis and Palestinians – a strategy that has backfired dramatically in the past – President Obama "rather intends to listen" to parties to the conflict.

Whatever the real reason behind President Obama's trip to Israel – be it to mend a relationship, build security ties, or uphold a promise – AIPAC's Policy Conference provided ample backdrop for media speculation. The world will soon find out for sure whether the President is there with a grand, if hidden, vision in mind – or if he simply is visiting, as Gur aptly concluded, because "he promised he would visit."