It's pretty rare for sitting presidents to visit Israel. Only four have done so since the state of Israel was created— Nixon, Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush.
So why is Barack Obama going to Israel? And why is this president— so early in his second term— reaching out to an Israeli prime minister with whom he has such a tense and dysfunctional relationship?
Indeed, given the personality and policy differences that separate Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, why not let new Secretary of State John Kerry handle this file for a while? Here is why Obama is going and why Israel matters.
Four years in, the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has become increasingly problematic and as leaders of close allies, they simply can't afford not to find a better way to communicate. It also has everything to do with smart politics.
Whether Obama intends to push Netanyahu on peace process issues or pander to him, it's important to get the visit thing out of the way early in the second term. Obama went to Cairo, Egypt, and gave a big speech to bond with the Arabs and Muslims in his first term. That eventually proved to be more words than deeds.
But warm words delivered with real empathy would soften Obama's image among many Israelis who see only his hard edge.
It's much better to go quickly when there are no expectations that the presidential trip will produce deliverables, than to wait and hope it will be easier to come up with results later. Obama is confronting the prospects of two catastrophes on his watch— seeing Iran go nuclear and the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict go down the tubes.
That Obama is coming to Netanyahu is important. Washington can be overwhelming with all of the pomp and pageantry that surrounds the White House.
The truth is, both men must begin to test whether or not they can develop a strategic understanding of how to sequence and deal with Iran and the Palestinian issue. Neither can accomplish their objectives without a much closer relationship.
Obama needs to reassure Netanyahu that if Israel gives him time and space to pursue diplomacy with Iran and that if talking fails, the United States will stop Iran with military force.
In the interim, Obama needs to hear that Netanyahu won't complicate his life by pushing high-profile settlement activity and that Israel will agree to negotiate in good faith on some of the final status issues such as security and territory.
It is significant that Obama is the first post-"Exodus" president. Around the world he is received with rock-star status and his distinction as America’s first president of color has gone a long way in helping many nations see our country’s powerful racist past in a different light.
However when it comes to Israel, Obama was six at the time of the stunning victory in the 1967 war. He doesn't relate emotionally to the narrative of Israel as the embattled nation, and grew up in an academic world where being supportive of
Israel really wasn't all that important.
Make no mistake, Obama has great skills but on the issue of Israel, he will never be Clinton or George W. Bush, but he doesn't have to be. He does however, need to demonstrate that he gets it— the United States will always have, and needs to continue to have a unique and close relationship with Israel.
In the wake of last month's Israeli elections, where a centrist party became the Knesset's second-largest, Obama may find settlement activity somewhat restrained, with Israelis demonstrating some additional flexibility on the Palestinian issue and perhaps an easing in some of his tensions with Netanyahu.
Let's hope so. The soap opera needs to stop. Common sense and the vital national interests of both Israel and the United States, depend upon it!