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White House officials said Tuesday that President Barack Obama, whose relationship with Israel routinely garners attention due to his reported tension with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, plans to visit the Jewish state this spring.
A specific date for Obama’s trip, which will also include Jordan, was not announced. Obama visited Israel when he ran for president in 2008, but this will be his first trip while in office. He decided to take this trip following a Jan. 28 phone conversation with Netanyahu, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
“The start of the president’s second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Syria,” National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
The Israeli Prime Minister’s office said the leaders “discussed the president visiting Israel after a new government is established, and the two agreed that such a visit would be an important opportunity to emphasize the friendship and strong partnership between Israel and the United States,” according to Israel Hayom.Meanwhile, the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) said in a statement that it was “thrilled to learn” of Obama’s plans.
“We are proud of the President’s unprecedentedly pro-Israel record and this upcoming trip will provide President Obama with yet another opportunity to affirm the unbreakable bond between the U.S. and Israel,” NJDC Chair Marc R. Stanley said.
But Richard Baehr—chief political correspondent for American Thinker—wasn’t as optimistic about what will come of Obama’s visit. He told JNS.org, “Obama and Netanyahu have met several times before, never with great warmth or accomplishment.” Baehr noted the progress achieved by Iran on its nuclear program during Obama’s first term, when the president did not visit Israel.
“It took four years for the president to get to Israel and during that time Iran has moved that much closer to becoming the world’s 10th nation with nuclear weapons,” Baehr wrote in an email. “With reports of another [U.S.] diplomatic initiative towards Iran in the works, [the U.S. and Israel] need to coordinate their responses once the diplomatic track fails, as it inevitably will. Diplomacy for Iran has always meant wasting time while its centrifuges spin.”
The Obama administration has repeatedly stressed that there remains time for diplomacy and sanctions to solve the Iranian nuclear issue. Vice President Joe Biden reiterated the administration’s desire for direct talks with Iran on Feb. 2 at an international security conference in Munich, saying: “We have made it clear at the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership, we would not make it a secret that we were doing that, [and] we would let our partners know if that occasion presented itself.”
Obama and Netanyahu have disagreed on setting a “red line” that, if crossed, would prompt U.S. military action against Iran over its nuclear program—Obama has thus far resisted Netanyahu’s calls for a red line, calling those calls “noise” in an interview with the CBS program “60 Minutes” last year. Can the two leaders find common ground on the issue when Obama visits Israel? The need for that outcome is there, Baehr wrote.
“There is a special need for [U.S.-Israel] coordination on Iran, especially if sabotage or military action against Iran is a possible option, as it certainly is at least for Israel,” he wrote.
In addition to praising Obama’s plans, NJDC’s Stanley noted new Secretary of State John Kerry’s plans to visit Israel in March. He commended both Kerry and Obama “for placing Israel and its security needs at the top of the Administration’s foreign policy agenda for President Obama’s second term.”
The visits by Kerry and Obama will cast some spotlight on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which has been stalled, and raise the question of what role the Obama administration might take in that process during his second term. But the focus should remain Iran, Baehr told JNS.org.
“The president should know by now that Israel is focused on the Iranian nuclear program, not on meaningless symbolic gestures to give the appearance that there is a peace process underway with the Palestinians,” he wrote. “The 20 years since Oslo have revealed that the Palestinians concede nothing on any issue and still expect in the end that Israel will disappear.”
The president, meanwhile, “buys totally into the western consensus view that the key obstacle to peace” is Israeli construction beyond the 1967 lines through his administration’s consistent criticism of that construction, according to Baehr.
“Obama believes Israel is the party that needs to take steps [for peace], not the Palestinian Authority, since Israel is strong and the Palestinians are weak,” Baehr wrote.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told Army Radio on Wednesday that the agenda for the president’s Israel trip includes the Iranian nuclear program, the Syria crisis and President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, and rekindling Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Nevertheless, there were “no preconditions and no demands” made ahead of Obama’s visit, according to the ambassador.
“The president is coming to consult with the prime minister, and also to consult with Mahmoud Abbas,” Shapiro said. “He is also going to Jordan. Israel will be his first foreign trip in his second term.”
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) said in a statement Wednesday that if Obama “wants to talk directly with the people in Israel, the only platform for that is the Knesset.”
“All the world leaders who have come to Israel, including past U.S. presidents and former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, visited the Knesset because they knew this is the people’s elected chamber and it is from there that Israel draws its strength as a state and as a democracy,” Rivlin said, adding that if Obama visited the Knesset, its members “would respect the occasion.”
News of Obama’s visit also comes at a time when his administration has come under fire in the pro-Israel community for the nomination (and expected confirmation) of former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. Hagel, who infamously referenced the “Jewish lobby” in 2008 when speaking to former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller, chairs the Atlantic Council think tank—which in December published a column titled “Israel’s Apartheid Policy” as well as a policy paper predicting that Iran “should be viewed as a potential natural partner” for the U.S. Hagel, as a senator, did not sign various pro-Israel letters backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), but did sign a 2009 letter asking Obama to directly negotiate with Hamas.
“The president may want to show his Israel love side now that he has nominated Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, perhaps the least sympathetic senator towards Israel in the last 15 years,” Baehr wrote. “The president loves to argue that he favors balanced approaches, and this would fit the pattern. Israel at this point needs more from the U.S. than a photo op or the manufactured attempt at balance.”