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What Obama can accomplish in Israel
Despite low expectations, Obama has a long to-do list
 
President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu play nice on the red carpet.
President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu play nice on the red carpet. Kobi Gideon /GPO via Getty Images

On his first visit to Israel since taking office, President Obama started off by declaring America's enduring support for its closest ally in the Middle East. "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," Obama said during a red-carpet welcoming ceremony at Tel Aviv's airport. "Our alliance is eternal." Obama joked with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying he was just happy to get away from Congress, but the president is expected to use the three-day trip to make a fresh start in his sometimes tense relationship with Israeli leaders, and rekindle peace talks with the Palestinians. He'll meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank on Thursday.

Obama only just arrived, but his "visit to Israel has got off on the right foot," says Mark Mardell at BBC News. He and Netanyahu "fell over themselves to be nice" to each other on the red carpet, which bodes well for a trip mostly meant to simply "rebuild bridges, re-establish relationships." Netanyahu said it was generous of Obama, the leader of what he called "the world's greatest democracy," to go out of his way to visit "a somewhat smaller democracy" on the first overseas trip of his second term.

President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have a notoriously prickly relationship, and an opinion poll of Jewish Israelis indicates that 51 percent think Obama is neutral about Israel — 10 percent think he is hostile.

So it was important that standing before the marching band and the dignitaries, fresh off the plane, Obama said the U.S. was proud to stand with Israel as its "strongest ally and... greatest friend", and that it was in America's national security interest to be close to Israel, in an uncertain time in the Middle East. [BBC News]

It will take more than buttering up Israel's leaders, however, to make the trip a success. Obama has "much ground to make up," says Britain's Telegraph in an editorial. He launched his first term by reaching out to the Arab world on a trip to Cairo, then failing to drop in on America's staunchest ally in the volatile region in the remaining four years of his first term.

If Obama believes he can charm his way to persuading the Israelis to back his peace efforts, he should think again. Netanyahu may have been weakened by the outcome of Israel's recent elections, but he has still managed to appoint two hard-liners to the all-important defense and housing ministries, where they can be expected to maintain Israel's controversial settlement building program. As the Palestinians refuse to countenance any resumption of talks so long as settlement work continues, the prospects of a breakthrough remain bleak. [Telegraph]

In the end, Obama might find the results of the trip to be mixed. He's trying "to reassure the Israelis he's got their back on Iran," says Janine Zacharia at Slate, but he might wind up wasting his time or, worse, making Netanyahu look like "the victor in his battle with Obama, rewarded not only for defying — or standing strongly against, depending on one's political perspective — an American president."

That doesn't mean the trip couldn't do some good. While the president is there ostensibly repairing the relationship with Israelis who've felt jilted, Obama may be sending an important signal to Tehran. The message: Just because I can't stand Bibi doesn't mean I won't stand with him in preventing you from getting a nuclear weapon.

[...] When he delivers his speech in Jerusalem on Thursday, Obama can remind Israelis that if they want their nation to be a nation like all others — one with internationally accepted borders, no longer targeted by divestment campaigns, and not facing a possible third Intifada — they need to stop saying they have no partner and make peace with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before it is too late. And if they can do that, he looks forward to coming back a second time as president — when they have a peace deal to sign. [Slate]

 
Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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