President Obama will make a much-anticipated visit to Israel next week, his first since taking office in 2009. After a first term marked by frosty relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the White House reportedly sees the visit as a crucial opportunity for Obama to reset relations with Israel, and to resurrect the moribund Arab-Israeli peace process. But can Obama make it happen?
He will certainly have his work cut out for him. Israeli officials, as well as the public, have long viewed Obama with suspicion, fearing that he doesn't support Israeli interests as strongly as previous American presidents. The fallout has centered on several controversies: Obama's initial insistence on a halt to new settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; his reluctance to take a more aggressive approach vis-a-vis Iran, which is suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapons program; and his outreach to the Muslim world in a 2009 speech in Cairo, in which he justified Israel's existence on the basis of the Holocaust, rather than stressing the Jewish people's ancient connection to the land.
Indeed, an October 2012 poll showed that Israeli voters would have preferred Obama's GOP opponent, Mitt Romney, by a dominant 25-point margin. Furthermore, Netanyahu made his preference just as clear when he welcomed Romney to Israel with open arms during the campaign season. "This is the worst relationship between an American president and an Israeli prime minister in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations," Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, tells Voice of America.
But much has changed in recent months. Netanyahu once seemed like an immovable force in Israeli politics (TIME magazine last year ran a cover story about him titled "King Bibi"), but he has been significantly weakened by January elections that saw his coalition lose seats to two parties led, respectively, by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett. As Netanyahu prepares to announce what appears to be a shaky coalition with his rivals, the chastened leader will have new impetus to make good with Obama. "Netanyahu wants to show Israelis, who like their leaders to be assertive with Washington but not on bad terms with it, that he can still do business with Israel's superpower ally," say Matt Spetalnick and Jeffrey Heller at Reuters.
Furthermore, as the window closes for Israel to take more forceful action against Iran, and as regional stability continues to be threatened by the Syrian civil war and a political crisis in Egypt, Israel has become more reliant on the U.S. for support. "This short, bustling visit will be different than any that preceded it," says Ari Shavit at Haaretz. "This time it will be the visit of an American president who holds the fate of the Jewish state in the palm of his hand."
Obama has his own strategy for dealing with Netanyahu, which involves a direct appeal to the Israeli people through highly symbolic gestures. "Everything is carefully planned and choreographed," says Herb Keinon at The Jerusalem Post. "Everything is planned with a message in mind." On his visit, Obama will tour the Iron Dome, a potent reminder that his administration has funded Israel's much-vaunted missile defense system. He will visit the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, as well as the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls — all of which is to acknowledge the Jewish people's rich history, and to make up for that perceived slight in his 2009 speech.
The idea is that if he has the Israeli public on his side, he can put even more pressure on a weakened Netanyahu to push for peace. "If Obama manages to crack the Israeli code on this visit, he might finally be able to convince them that he really does understand them," writes Jeffrey Goldberg at Bloomberg. "Then he may have the space to speak to them bluntly — over the head of the prime minister, if necessary — about the difficult choices their country faces."