President Obama Wednesday stated during an appearance with Israeli President Shimon Peres that “the state of Israel will have no greater friend than the United States.” In public appearances with both Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there were smiles and hugs all around. But all these smiles have to mask some hard feelings.
It may be true that the United States is Israel’s best friend, but Israelis may not find it a comforting thought. Only 10 percent of Israelis hold a favorable view of Obama and his foreign policy. Palestinians are even less enthusiastic.
Nor is this surprising. Since Obama has been in office, the Middle East region has become a far more dangerous and unstable place. The Administration’s hands-off approach and the hope that others will take the lead—which are key aspects of the Obama Doctrine—have allowed turmoil in the region to go unchecked.
Al-Qaeda is on the rise; Hamas has rained rockets down on Israel’s cities; in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is in power; Syria is in a state of civil war; and Iranian proxies are advancing regionally, and its nuclear program is proceeding apace. And the relationship between the American President and Netanyahu has been a rocky one to say the least. They may have met 10 times, as Netanyahu said at their joint press conference, but some of these meetings have been incredibly tense.
The distance between the symbolism and substance of the presidential visit is gaping. On the one hand, there are the photo ops, the visits to the holy sites of Jerusalem, and the speech to Israeli students—a classic public diplomacy opportunity. (The speech was already controversial, as students from Ariel University in the West Bank were excluded from attendance.)
On the other hand, there is no doubt that the messages privately conveyed to the Israeli government by Obama and newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry will be tough: Demanding that they make more concessions on settlements will undoubtedly be one, and warning Israel not to attempt a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities will likely be another, as will encouraging yet another attempt at diplomacy even though the chances of success are slimmer than slim.
In a recent Issue Brief, Heritage senior research fellow Jim Phillips wrote: “Close Israeli–American cooperation is needed to address chief policy issues that loom large on his trip.” Israel remains indeed the best and only truly stable ally the United States has in the Middle East. A “reset” of relations with this old friend, which the Obama White House seems to be hoping for, would be a highly desirable outcome of the trip.