The White House said this week that President Barack Obama will not be unveiling a specific new peace proposal when he visits Israel in the spring.
The visit will focus on Syria and Iran, the White House said in a briefing to reporters on Feb. 6.
The briefing came a day after the White House announced that Obama would travel to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, raising the possibility that in his second term the president would launch a new push to revive the stalled peace process.
But White House spokesman Jay Carney says that’s not the purpose of the trip. He says the visit is timed to coincide with the start of new terms for Obama and for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“This is a trip the president looks forward to making that is timed in part because we have here obviously a second term for the president, a new administration and a new government in Israel, and that’s an opportune time for a visit like this that is not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals,” Carney told reporters at the briefing.
“We expect that Iran and Syria will be topics of conversation, but I’m sure a variety of issues will be discussed, as they always are, when the president meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders. And that is certainly the case when he meets with Palestinian Authority officials.”
On Feb. 5, word went out that Obama was planning his first trip to Israel as president. He last visited in 2008, as a candidate for the Oval Office. This time, the White House said, he was also planning to meet with Palestinian Authority leaders and visit Jordan.
Obama spoke of the trip in a conversation with Netanyahu on Jan. 28. The White House did not announce dates, although media outlets are reporting a March 20 arrival in Israel.
Pundits immediately seized upon the announcement as a signal that the president was looking to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Part of the problem is that on all sides, there’s disbelief that peace is possible,” opined David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which has close ties to the Obama and Netanyahu governments. “[Obama] wants to engage both societies about why you can’t give up. He wants to engage on the gut level with Arabs and Israelis in a way he hasn’t until now.”
In a region where visuals are important, Obama’s failure to visit during his first term as president was brandished by his opponents as evidence that Israel was not a priority for him. It did not help Obama’s popularity in Israel that he omitted the Jewish state from a June 2009 Middle East itinerary that included a major speech in Cairo and a stop in Saudi Arabia.
As much as anything else, the coming trip may be about reaching out to Israelis.
“I’m excited that President Obama is coming this spring to reaffirm the deep ties between Israel and the United States,” Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, said in a message in Hebrew on Twitter, the day before it was clarified that Obama would not be focusing on peacemaking.
One person who may welcome the revised mission plan is Netanyahu himself. A U.S. president on Israeli soil sends an unmistakable message to Israel’s enemies that America stands with Israel. That could help Netanyahu politically — not having to squabble with Obama over peace plans makes it easier to present a united front. Netanyahu emerged weakened from Israel’s Jan. 22 elections, and aides have said they believe voters stayed away from the prime minister over concerns about his rapport with Obama.
The two leaders have had something of a fraught relationship. They have philosophical differences about Israel’s settlements, and disagreements about the red line for Iran’s nuclear program. There have been perceived snubs on both sides.
During a March 2010 White House meeting, Netanyahu was denied a photo opportunity with the president and Obama interrupted their meeting to eat dinner. Last year, Netanyahu gave an enthusiastic reception to Obama rival Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign.
But the latest elections in the United States and Israel could mark a turning point.
In recent days, Netanyahu has indicated he wants to establish a coalition government that tends more to the center than his last government.
“It’s a new beginning: Obama can have a serious discussion with the Israeli prime minister at a time he’s heading a new government,” said Dennis Ross, a counsel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was an adviser on the Middle East to Obama until 2011.
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. negotiator who now is vice president of the Wilson International Center for Scholars, says both Obama and Netanyahu are being driven to a rapprochement by exigency: Netanyahu by his weakened political position and Obama by his desire to preserve his legacy.
“One guy is caught in circumstances which require improvement, and the other guy knows if he wants to get anywhere he’s going to have to figure out if he can work with Bibi,” Miller said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.