Why is President Obama visiting Israel?

On Wednesday, Barack Obama will begin his first visit as President to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. I have just one question: why? What could President Obama possibly think he can accomplish in his meetings with Israeli leaders?

National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes put out a (monotoned) video to try and answer precisely that question.

Cutting out the fluff, meaningless phrases, and tourist activities, the list of actual issues that Rhodes names for the President’s talks with Israeli leaders are:

  1. Peace process
  2. Iran
  3. Syria

It is not entirely clear, however, that there is much to discuss when it comes to any of these issues.

The peace process is perhaps the most obvious dead end of the three. The U.S. remains committed to advancing a two state solution along the Oslo Accords framework. Although Bibi Netanyahu has officially endorsed the two-state solution, his Likud party has not, and several MKs from his party  stand adamantly opposed to it. More so, Mr. Netanyahu’s previous governments’ actions have so greatly undermined the possibility of a two-state solution, that even mainstream newspapers are starting to wonder aloud if it has slipped beyond reach.

Even if Mr. Netanyahu somehow did somehow wish to advance a two-state peace process, though, the makeup of his new coalition government makes such a scenario impossible. Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party – which advocates formalizing Israel’s apartheid system by annexing most of the West Bank and creating Palestinian Bantustans in the remainder – controls 11 seats in the new Knesset, enough to bring down the government. And Yair Lapid’s 19-MK strong There Is a Future party – which the media confoundedly insists on calling a “centrist” party – has been lockstep with Bennett since the elections, so much so that Mr. Lapid forbade his members from participating in a Geneva Initiative tour, an action so extreme not even Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud nor the Religious Shas party followed suit.

Simply put, no matter what Mr. Obama does or says over the next couple of days, there is simply no possibility for advancing anything resembling a two-state peace process in the immediate future. And, with Israel’s new housing minister promising continued settlement building in the West Bank, the possibility of ever realizing a two-state solutions grows ever more remote. Hence the reason why one settler-colonist recently described the new government as “a wet dream.”

On Iran, there likewise seems to be little to discuss. Although Mr. Netanyahu’s rhetoric – not to mention his buffoonish cartoons – has been quite hawkish on Iran in the past, the possibility of military action against the Islamic Republic grows ever more remote. Military elites in Israel and American continue to publicly express their skepticism over the both the practicalities and the wisdom of such a strike. The latest example of this came last week when the head of Israel’s military intelligence, Major General Amir Kochavi, publicly declared that Iran has yet to decide to pursue atomic weapons. If there appeared to be nothing to discuss regarding the peace process because of irreconcilable differences, when it comes to Iran it seems like everyone is pretty much on the same page.

Finally, on Syria it is not clear how much there is to discuss at the moment either. As bad as our foreign policy has been, it seems like U.S. policy is pretty much on autopilot, funneling arms and materiel to the rebels under the table. There may be some minor issues to discuss regarding the Israeli-Syrian border, intelligence sharing, and planning for a post-conflict situation, but these are more the sort of minor issues that can easily be worked out by undersecretaries than Presidents and Prime Ministers.

So there would appear to be no possibility for serious progress on any of the three issues that Ben Rhodes names.

The funny thing is, Mr. Rhodes seems to indicate hat the White House is well aware of the futility of talking with Israeli government officials. After describing the policy issues to be discussed, Mr. Rhodes declares:

After that, the President will go to the Jerusalem Convention Center, where he’ll give a speech to an audience of mainly Israeli university students. And this really is the true purpose of the visit, an ability for the President to speak directly to the Israeli people about the future that we want to build together.

Did you catch that? The true purpose of the visit is not to talk policy with government officials, but rather to give a speech to a bunch of university students.

It’s difficult to imagine what any President of the United States could possibly say that would be at all impactful or productive at the moment (and easy to imagine how such a speech could cause harm). Still, this President is at his best when he is giving big speeches. It will be interesting to see whether President Obama raises the specter of a one-state solution. Even though such a reference would no doubt be a (most likely unsuccessful) ploy to frighten Israelis into supporting a two-state solution, it’s mention by a U.S. President could nonetheless represent important move towards further legitimizing the one-state possibility in U.S. political discourse. And that would be something. A small something, but it’s better than nothing.

So if even the White House admits that the sole purpose of the visit is to deliver a speech, then let’s hope it’s a good one. Perhaps the White House believes this could be the Cairo Speech of the second term. Other than fulfilling a silly campaign promise, it seems to be the only reason for his visit. We’ll be watching, albeit with great skepticism.


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