President Barack Obama's announced trip to Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank in March appears at once premature and long overdue. Premature because the tangible goals of this trip seem, as yet, unclear. Overdue because -- as many critics have suggested -- his failure to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority in his first term contributed to a sense, among Israelis in particular, of a presidential cold shoulder.
Of the two big items on the president's Israel plate -- dealing with Iran's nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- the former appears paused, awaiting a diplomatic move by the international community, while the latter is in deep freeze and beset by pessimism on all sides. Unsurprisingly, Obama does not plan to announce a major new peace initiative on this trip, and he is unlikely to bring about a breakthrough on Iran now. Rather than seeking to extract specific policy concessions from any of the parties, the president should approach this with the broader aim of restarting his engagement with Israelis and Palestinians, while setting the stage for dealings with Iran and the peace process over the next four years. But even an unambitious trip to the Middle East is full of political minefields. Here, then, are five suggestions for Obama's first presidential journey to the Holy Land.
Don't promise the moon.
Many things are lost in translation between the political cultures of the Middle East and United States, but few contrasts are as sharp as the gap in cynicism. Israelis, Palestinians, and their neighbors are cynical to a degree that often astounds Americans, and with the endless unmet promises of peace and of "process," the attitude is not completely unwarranted. As Obama knows all too well, to have tried and failed in Middle East peace is sometimes worse than not to have tried at all. Today, after so many failures, the fanfare of the 1990s peace process is best replaced by sober -- though vigorous -- negotiations more reminiscent of the mid-1970s, when Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy set the stage for the subsequent grand gestures of Egyptian-Israeli peace.
But in the halls of Washington these days, there is speculation that Secretary of State John Kerry could back a new full-scale push for comprehensive peace. The motivation is understandable, even laudable, and the goal of achieving a two-state solution is vitally important. But the peace process of old is over; the trust between the parties that was to be wrought through interim steps is long gone, to the degree that it ever existed.
A push for peace now should not assume that the process has merely stalled; its old form is likely dead. The repeated failures to achieve final status agreements from the second Camp David summit in 2000 onward and the new realities of the Middle East -- with turmoil in Egypt, Syria, and potentially among other neighbors of Israel -- have redefined the nature of the process at its core. Right now, quiet talks over practical steps, with peace as the ultimate goal, are far better than grand promises that few believe will be fulfilled.
But don't give up on reaching for the moon.
The myriad difficulties of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict do not lessen the vital need to halt backsliding on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the need to advance toward an eventual resolution. The untenable nature of the status quo is no less true because of the difficulties of achieving the goal.
In this respect, there's a silver lining for Obama in the grim cloud of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though seemingly dead in the water, the peace process did leave both parties and the international community with a relatively clear view of what resolution would eventually look like. Obama can therefore focus on articulating U.S. interests -- as he has done in the past -- rather than dealing with the intricate details of negotiation (something his predecessor, Bill Clinton, may have done too often).
The irony is that the very same polls that show Israeli and Palestinian skepticism of the prospects for peace also show their fundamental agreement with the terms required to achieve it (even among right-wing Israelis, there is willingness for real compromise). Stopping the backsliding on the ground -- the erosion of the Palestinian Authority and the moderates, on one side; the construction of Israeli settlement outposts, on the other -- while building Palestinian independence and ensuring long-term Israeli security remains in everyone's interest. On these points, the president should not shy away from articulating the long-term U.S. vision, whether his hosts agree with every detail or not.