Barack Obama has announced that he will visit Israel, finally, this Spring. Considering the traditional importance in US-Israeli relations, it is quite surprising that Obama has waited until his second term to meet with the also recently re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister.
Of course, the delay in Obama’s visiting Israel is not so surprising given the strained relations he has endured with Netanyahu since he first became President. Indeed, at times, Obama and his supporters have seemed positively fed-up with the ultra-conservative Netanyahu’s refusal to compromise on any of the key security issues of the Middle East, such as the future of a Palestinian state, Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and the Iranian nuclear dilemma.
That said, the “Jewish Lobby” remains a potent force in American politics. Bipartisan support remains for affording Israel the luxury of being American’s number one partner in the Middle East, with a general scepticism towards the region’s Islamic states widely shared by senior politicians.
Consequently, Obama’s trip to Israel cannot be underestimated, in the same way that Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 could never have been given its significance. Nixon went to establish official American relations with the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC), having persistently recognised the Kuomintang on Taiwan as the “legitimate” Chinese authority in the preceding years. Taking advantage of a thawing in Sino-Soviet relations, Nixon and his entourage skillfully tipped the balance of the Cold War in America’s favour by breaking any hopes of a potentially devastating communist axis in the east.
Whilst Nixon’s visit to China was all about establishing relations, Obama’s goal in Israel will be to re-establish the vital US-Israeli relationship. Whilst the increasing belligerence of Netanyahu both towards Iran and its allies (as shown by Israeli strategic bombing in Syria and Sudan) is alarming, he still presents the lesser of several evils to Obama. A nuclearised Iran is the last thing America needs in the Middle East after more than a decade of bloody military intervention to stabilise the region. Put simply, America needs Israel’s undying support in the Middle East against a possible resurgence in terrorist activity and, particularly, against an aggressive Iran.
Netanyahu has made Obama’s job increasingly difficult. Outlining as his major foreign policy goal the conclusion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement on his accession to the presidency, Obama has been continually frustrated by the charismatic Netanyahu, who has intricately played on the fears of his people that their neighbours want to annihilate them in a bid to popularise an increasingly nationalist state. Unfortunately, Obama is now faced with the reality that if he wants to regain a strong Israeli alliance, he is going to have to begin making concessions rather than demands.
He will have to turn a blind eye to continued Jewish settlement building on Palestinian lands, support Israel unceasingly at the UN against any Palestinian bid towards greater global recognition and offer unconditional military assistance in the event of an external threat from Iran or Hezbollah.
Nixon’s visit to China may have been more symbolic but he had less to lose than Obama does. Sino-American relations were non-existent and had that persisted after the 1972 visit it would have been put down to the evils and uncompromising nature of communism. If Obama returns from Israel with American-Jewish relations further strained, he will be attacked mercilessly by the Republicans and will be the target of both ridicule and more sinister scheming from America’s enemies in the Middle East. Iran would like nothing better than to see a further segregation of US and Israeli foreign policy. Nor for that matter would several other Islamic states in the region. For the sake of the Middle East, and for that of his own country, President Obama must make the right noises when he enters the Holy Land in Spring.