Obama to Israel: why now?

AFP , Sunday 10 Feb 2013

He's hardly best buddies with Benjamin Netanyahu and his drive for a Palestinian state is comatose, so why did Barack Obama pick Israel to fire up his legacy-boosting second term diplomacy?

The US president Barack Obama
The US president Barack Obama (Photo: AP)

The US president Barack Obama sprung a surprise last week by announcing he would pick the turmoil-laced Middle East for the first trip since re-election.

The twisted personal chemistry between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu is no secret, and was not helped by the Israeli leader rooting for Republican Mitt Romney in November's election.

After Obama's first term peace efforts were spurned by Israel, and Palestinians embarrassed him by seeking UN recognition, the chances of the president coming home with nothing to show for his trip seem high.

But the political timetable reshaped power dynamics after US and Israeli elections, and crises both nations face -- including Syria's mayhem, uproar in Egypt and Iran's nuclear defiance -- mean a visit may make sense.

The success of the centrist Yesh Atid Party in the Israeli elections, noises from new Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama's trip have sparked some optimism of a new US-sponsored peace drive by Washington.

The White House quickly dampened expectations that Obama, burned by a failed effort in his first term, would launch his second with a blockbuster peace initiative.

Paradoxically, current hibernation of the Israeli-Palestinian track may make now the optimal time for Obama to visit.

Freed from expectations of a breakthrough, White House officials can bill the trip as a chance for both sides to coordinate positions on issues certain to dominate the new governments on both sides.

Had Obama waited, the shelf life on that narrative would have passed and the Israeli-Palestinian question would have loomed larger.

Obama may benefit from heading to Israel at a time when his power as a re-elected president is at its apex, before second term lame duck beckons.

An early visit also smacks down Republicans who complain he is yet to visit Israel, and underlines to foes like Iran that the alliance is unshakeable despite personal tiffs between Obama and Netanyahu.

"It is better to go at the beginning of your term, than in year seven or eight when you are on your way out of the door," a senior US official told AFP.

Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University professor who was once a senior advisor to Obama's State Department, said presidential trips are about more than chalking up points on a diplomatic scorecard.

"I don't think that presidential trips are just about deliverables," he said.

"If you look at the trips the president made in his first term, to China for instance, these were about moving the relationship."

For all the talk of Obama's first-term foreign policy pivot to Asia, his trip, also including the West Bank and Jordan, will also demonstrate that the Middle East remains an important foreign policy focus.

The fact that Netanyahu, who had his maximum point of leverage over Obama before the last year's US election, has emerged in a weaker political position after his own date with voters is not lost on the White House.

After Democratic complaints Netanyahu meddled in US politics, the way Obama's trip is looming over the Israeli leader's coalition building is ironic.

Democrats also savor the fact that Romney lambasted Obama for throwing "Israel under the bus" and pledged to make Israel his first foreign stop as president -- and now it is Obama who gets to make that journey.

Privately, White House officials do not even pretend Netanyahu and Obama are close, following their spats over Israeli settlements and the Israeli leader's lecture on Israeli history in the Oval Office.

Differences are not only personal.

The dispute over the imminence of the Iranian nuclear threat, Netanyahu's demands for US "red lines" which could trigger military action, and the Israeli leader's threats of a go-it-alone strike estranged the two men.

Netanyahu worries that Iranian underground nuclear development could reach a point where Israel could not hope to thwart it with air power.

Washington, granted a longer timetable for action by its deadlier arsenal, feared an early Israeli strike could drag the United States into another war as Obama seeks to extricate troops from Muslim world battlefields.

Perhaps shared threats, less US pressure on the peace process, and mutually threatening crises like Syria and Iran could bring Netanyahu and Obama closer.

Washington would also welcome an Israeli coalition that relies less on ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, while Netanyahu and Obama, shrewd politicians both, may seek successes to define their legacies.

They also have something else in common: they are survivors.

Since they took power in 2009, the world has changed around them: Middle Eastern tyrants have been swallowed by the Arab Awakening, and economic crises and term limits have dispensed with European and Asian leaders.

"The president already has a longer and deeper working relationship with Netanyahu than any other world leader," said one US official.

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