Obama Middle East Trip: Will It Stop a Growing Crisis?

President Obama arrived at Tel-Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport Wednesday morning where he was greeted by a full salute from the Israeli military. Obama smiled for pictures with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. Each of the leaders spoke to the press as they affirmed their support and loyalty to one another. The White House has largely referred to the trip as a “listening tour” in an effort to dispel any expectations that anything constructive will come out of his first trip to Israel. This trip will do little but highlight the mounting instability in the Middle East. 

Obama wasted no time in attempting to clear up any misconceptions about his administrations relationship with Israel. His sometimes contentious relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu during peace talks were a source of constant consternation during the past presidential election. 

“I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between our nations, to restate America's unwavering commitment to Israel's security and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors. I am confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, is forever. We stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land. Even as we are clear eyed about the difficulties, we will never lose sight of the vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu thanked President Obama for his support both financially and militarily. Obama also viewed the Pentagon-backed Iron Dome defense system which was brought to the airport for him to see. The system intercepts rockets aimed at Israel by Palestine. 

Netanyahu and Obama will have more serious discussions away from the public eye later this afternoon and into the evening when they two meet for dinner. The discussion is likely to center around the Syria crisis and Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu would like to see the U.S. take more drastic steps to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The U.S. is more resistant to the idea of preventative military action and hopes to get Israel on board for nuclear talks scheduled to resume with Iran in early April.  

Obama and Netanyahu vehemently disagree over the building of settlements in the West Bank. Netanyahu’s recently formed coalition party is largely made up of supporters of the settlements. The UN Human Rights Council met on Monday to discuss possible violations by Israel due to their encroachment on the West Bank. The U.S. did not take part in any of the discussions and accused the council of being anti-Israel. 

There are some Palestinian people who see Obama’s relationship with Israel as somewhat duplicitous. They believe that Obama personally sides with them and is only publicly supporting Israel because of their strategic position in the Middle East. That opinion is hardly shared by all Palestinians; many of whom view Obama with bitter disappointment. Obama is scheduled to visit the Palestinian city of Ramallah on Friday. There, he will meet with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. 

The symbolism of Obama taking a seven-mile helicopter ride to Ramallah, instead of driving, should not be lost. Obama avoids having to be physically seen near the 24-ft high concrete wall that cuts through Jerusalem, nor will he see up close the one-hundred-plus Israeli settlements that pierce the West Bank. Protests against the U.S. are expected and have already broken out in Ramallah.

Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu isn’t as close as Wednesday’s photo-op might indicate. The two disagree on a key number of issues and those disagreements are unlikely to be resolved in this trip. The truth of this trip is that if Obama wants to see any progress in the Middle East, he’s got to first thaw out his relationship with Netanyahu. The trip comes as the situation in the Middle East worsens. A likely chemical weapons attack in Syria and Iran’s flagrant disregard for diplomatic talks, may have the two leaders more willing to work together to ensure each others' safety.