After four years in office, Barack Obama finally has booked a ticket for Ben Gurion Airport. The White House announced he will make a visit to Israel in March, his first as president.
To call the trip overdue would be a gross understatement. Obama’s seeming reluctance to step on Israeli soil in his first term suggested a turning away, however slight, by the United States from its most steadfast Middle East ally.
That tension fed itself over time, fueled by the frosty relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it appears the two, both fresh from re-election fights, are ready to do business. So why has the White House now announced that Obama will not be focusing on the peace process during his visit, but will limit the discussion to Iran and Syria?
The leaders begin their new terms on unequal footing. Obama cruised to victory and seems poised to spend political capital on jump-starting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Netanyahu, by contrast, finds himself weakened after last month’s election and must now make room for centrists such as Yair Lapid, head of the second-place Yesh Atid party that is pushing hard for progress toward a two-state solution.
With the election behind him, Obama wants to burnish his legacy. Netanyahu wants to stay in power. The two need each other.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told the Jerusalem Post this week that the talks between Obama and Netanyahu will take place “without preconditions,” which suggests the two leaders are indeed ready to hit the reset button on their personal relationship as well as their joint approach to confronting regional challenges.
Obama’s itinerary also includes meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah. These leaders have formally committed to a two-state solution, a dream that seems further away than ever, but which must not be allowed to die.
It will not be easy to prod Abbas and Netanyahu back to the table, and with so much loss of trust over the last few years there may be little hope of progress even if talks resume. The Middle East is changing, and not for the better. Syria is disintegrating, with Islamists poised to fill the vacuum. Egypt, now ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, faces chronic chaos. Iran never rests in its ambitions to reign over the Muslim world. And in Israel’s backyard, Hamas consolidates its power, laying in wait to seize control of the West Bank as it has in Gaza.
Much needs to be done. It requires steady hands and no daylight between Israel and the United States. Now is the time for these allies to close ranks and find the path to peace — with Iran, Syria and the Palestinians.