March 15, 2013
The upcoming visit of United States President Barack Obama to Israel has taken on a life of its own.
Perhaps because the American leader did not travel to the Jewish state in his first term, even while visiting several nearby countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, or because so much media attention has been devoted to the reported lack of chemistry between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speculation is rampant about what might be in the offing.
Ignoring the famous dictum, “Never make predictions, especially about the future," here is my forecast: Those expecting some dramatic confrontation during the president's visit will be sorely disappointed. This is likely to be a very upbeat, successful trip that will underscore what Obama has called America's "ironclad" commitment to Israel and Israel's unique partnership with the United States.
After all, whether each leader would have voted for the other is today irrelevant. Both were elected and can expect to spend the next four years dealing with each other. As seasoned politicians, they recognize the ultimate litmus test is not personal chemistry, important though it can be, but shared values and interests.
The shared values are clear. For Washington, having a democratic ally committed to the rule of law, free and fair elections, a robust civil society and protection of minorities is not something to be taken for granted, especially these days in the increasingly turbulent Middle East. For Jerusalem, having the world's most powerful democracy in your corner is not to be minimized. And knowing that, year after year, strong majorities of the American people identify with democratic Israel only highlights what makes this bilateral link so unique.
But there is more. The two countries have always had shared interests. Even though some Americans have questioned whether, in the post-Cold War era, Israel continues to be a big asset to Washington's strategic aims, the answer today could not be clearer.
Both countries see a region that presents profound, indeed escalating, challenges to their shared objectives: preventing nuclear proliferation, stopping the spread of biological and chemical weapons and blunting the ascendancy of anti-democratic and intolerant Islamist forces emanating from the Arab upheaval – not to mention the ever-present hope of advancing prospects for peaceful conflict resolution.
So when Obama and Netanyahu get together, there will be much to discuss. Given the high level of agreement going into the meetings about what Obama has described as the "tumult" in Israel's neighborhood, still more coordination and alignment on topics ranging from Iran to Syria can be expected. So too with American-Israeli defense cooperation, exemplified by such joint projects as the Iron Dome missile-intercept system. The president is likely to reaffirm Washington's unwavering support for Israel's security, even as budget challenges persist back home, and to ensure that not only the Israeli people, but also Israel's neighbors, get the message.
The president will also seek to connect with the Israeli public. He did so effectively as a presidential candidate in 2008, especially during his visit to Sderot. He knows he needs to reestablish the link and, in doing so, overcome some lingering suspicions about whether he really understands Israel and has Israel's best interests in his kishkes.
That means identifying with Israel's yearning for peace, security and normality and appreciating its fears of the malevolent forces in the region starting with Iran, the global campaign to delegitimize Israel's very right to exist and persistent efforts to isolate the country in international settings.
It also means stressing the Jewish people's age-old connection to the land and thereby underscoring what Zionism really is, not what those like Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan pretend it to be. And it calls for seeing Israel beyond the conflict, as a country that is a powerful technological incubator with a vibrant culture, a humanistic spirit, a resilient population and path-breaking achievements, ranging from defense to medicine, that contribute directly to America's well-being.
What will the president say about the peace process? In all likelihood, he will restate his vision of two states for two peoples, stressing this is not just a pie-in-the-sky vision, however remote its prospects may appear today, and that it is in the long-term interests of Israelis and Palestinians alike. While not launching a new peace plan during this trip, Obama will doubtless call on policymakers in Jerusalem and Ramallah to be ready to take risks, show courage, build trust and avoid unilateral steps in working to create new horizons for an accord, with America ready to support the peacemakers.
With both sides eager to make the visit a resounding success, Obama's trip to Israel could, in fact, turn out to be another important step forward in the bilateral relationship. That's not just wishful thinking, but an odds-on bet!
David Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which can be followed here @AJCGlobal.