WASHINGTON – When President Barack Obama steps into the Middle East’s political cauldron this week, he won’t be seeking any grand resolution for the region’s vexing problems.
His goal will be trying to keep the troubles, from Iran’s suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon to the bitter discord between Israelis and Palestinians, from boiling over on his watch.
Obama arrives in Jerusalem on Wednesday for his first trip to Israel as president. His first priority will be resetting his oft-troubled relationship with now weakened Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and evaluating the new coalition government Netanyahu laboriously cobbled together.
The president also will look to boost his appeal to a skeptical Israeli public, as well as to frustrated Palestinians.
“This is not about accomplishing anything now. This is what I call a down payment trip,” said Aaron David Miller, an adviser on Mideast peace to six secretaries of state who is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
For much of Obama’s first term, White House officials saw little reason for him to go to the region without a realistic chance for a peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinians. But with the president’s one attempt at a U.S.-brokered deal thwarted in his first term and the two sides even more at odds, the White House has shifted thinking.
Officials now see the lowered expectations as a chance to create space for frank conversations between Obama and both sides about what it will take to get back to the negotiating table.
The president will use his face-to-face meetings to “persuade both sides to refrain from taking provocative unilateral actions that could be self-defeating,” said Haim Malka, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The trip gives Obama the opportunity to meet Netanyahu on his own turf, and that could help ease the tension that has at times defined their relationship.
The leaders have tangled over Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, and Netanyahu has questioned Obama’s commitment to containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Netanyahu also famously lectured the president in front of the media during a 2011 meeting in the Oval Office, and later made no secret of his fondness for Republican challenger Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential campaign.
Beyond Mideast peace, the two leaders have similar regional goals, including ending the violence in Syria and containing the political tumult in Egypt, which has a decades-old peace treaty with Israel.
The president’s trip comes at a time of political change for Israel.
Netanyahu’s power was diminished in January elections and he struggled to form a government. He finally reached a deal on Friday with rival parties, creating a coalition that brings the centrist Yesh Atid and pro-settler Jewish Home parties into the government and excludes the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties for the first time in a decade.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, acknowledged that with a new government, “you don’t expect to close the deal on any one major initiative.” But he said starting those conversations now “can frame those decisions that ultimately will come down the line.”
Among those decisions will be next steps in dealing with Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
Israel repeatedly has threatened to take military action should Iran appear to be on the verge of obtaining a bomb. The U.S. has pushed for more time to allow diplomacy and economic penalties to run their course, though Obama insists military action is an option.
The West says Iran’s program is aimed at developing weapons technology. Iran says its program is for peaceful energy purposes.
Another central difference between the allies on Iran is the timeline for possible military action.
Netanyahu, in a speech to the United Nations in September, said Iran was about six months away from being able to build a bomb. Obama told an Israeli television station this past week that the U.S. thinks it would take “over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon.”
Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., tried to play down any division on the Iranian issue ahead of Obama’s trip. He said Friday that “the United States and Israel see many of the same facts about the Iranian nuclear program and draw many similar conclusions.”
Obama’s visit to Israel may quiet critics in the U.S. who interpreted his failure to travel there in his first term as a sign that he was less supportive of the Jewish state than his predecessors. Republican lawmakers levied that criticism frequently during last year’s presidential campaign, despite the fact that GOP President George W. Bush did not visit Israel until his final year in office.
The centerpiece of Obama’s visit will be a speech in Jerusalem to an audience mainly of Israeli students. It’s part of the president’s effort to appeal to the Israeli public, particularly young people.
He will make several cultural stops, all steeped in symbolism, in the region. They include the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem; Mount Herzl, where he’ll lay wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, and Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist who opposed Rabin’s policy of trading land with the Palestinians for peace; and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a revered site for Christians.
In a sign of the close military ties between the U.S. and Israel, Obama will view an Iron Dome battery, part of the missile defense system the U.S. has helped pay for.
Traveling to the West Bank, Obama will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah. Obama and Fayyad will visit a Palestinian youth center, another attempt to reach the region’s young people.
Obama will make a 24-hour stop in Jordan, an important U.S. ally, where the president’s focus will be on the violence in neighboring Syria. More than 450,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan, crowding refugee camps and overwhelming aid organizations.
The White House said Obama had no plans to visit a refugee camp while in Jordan, though he will be discussing with government officials how the U.S. can increase its assistance.
In his talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Obama also will try to shore up the country’s fledgling attempts to liberalize its government and stave off an Arab Spring-style movement similar to the ones that have taken down leaders elsewhere in the region.
The president’s final stop will be in Petra, Jordan’s fabled ancient city.