Skip to main content

Why Obama is visiting Israel

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits President Barack Obama at the White House last year.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits President Barack Obama at the White House last year.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron David Miller: Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have a tense relationship
  • Miller: It's smart for Obama to visit Israel now since there are less expectations
  • He says the trip will give Obama a chance to show empathy for Israelis and help create a bond
  • Miller: One trip won't be transformational, but it's a good start to tackling vital issues

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- 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? 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?

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

Here's why Obama's going.

Clearing away old business

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Four years in, the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has become increasingly dysfunctional, and as leaders of close allies, they simply can't afford not to find a better way to communicate. It's also 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.

What will 2013 bring for Iran, Israel?

Go early with no expectations

It's much better to go quickly when there are no expectations that the presidential trip will produce dramatic deliverables than to wait and hope it will be easier to come up with results later. The longer Obama delays the greater the expectations and the less chance he'll have of producing anything.

Indeed, by folding Jordan and the West Bank into the agenda he makes a virtue out of a necessity. This is a chance for the president to survey the real estate, buck up King Abdullah II, do something for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, too, particularly at a time when his rival Hamas seems to be scoring gains.

And there's nothing wrong with reconfirming America's commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace at a time when the focus has been on Syria, Egypt and Iran.

There's serious work to be done

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 expire. Israel, and more importantly his relationship with Netanyahu, can play a key role in preventing those things from happening.

That Obama is coming to Bibi, particularly given the tension between them, offers Netanyahu -- who needs Obama, too, to deal with Iran -- a way to correct the course.

Indeed, the two 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. The fact is neither can accomplish their objectives without much closer cooperation.

Obama needs to reassure Netanyahu that if the Israelis give him time and space to pursue diplomacy with Iran and that talking fails, the United States will stop Iran from weaponizing 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. In return, Obama will not press Netanyahu on the identity issues, Jerusalem and refugees for now.

Changing Obama's image

Obama is our first post-"Exodus" president. Leon Uris' 1958 novel, "Exodus," and the 1960 movie version were heroic portrayals of pre-state Israelis in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide confronting insensitive British and fanatic Arabs. Obama was 6 at the time of Israel's stunning victory in the 1967 war. He doesn't relate emotionally to the underdog tropes of Israel as the embattled nation, and grew up in an academic world where being supportive of Israel really wasn't all that important. Unlike the movie "Exodus," to Obama, the Israelis aren't the stalwart cowboys outgunned and outnumbered by the Palestinian Indians.

And unlike Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, Obama doesn't seem to relate intuitively to the idea of Israel but situates it far more along a national interest than a values continuum.

Obama doesn't always emote, but when he does, he can be very effective. His visit to Israel will give him an opportunity to show empathy in a powerful manner and help create a bond.

Obama will never be Clinton; he doesn't have to be. But he does need to demonstrate that he gets it -- that for all of Israel's formidable power and muscle and technological prowess, it's still a small country with a dark past living often on the knife's edge in a very rough neighborhood.

One visit won't a transformed relationship make.

But 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 Obama-Bibi soap opera has gone on for too long. The soap opera needs to stop. Common sense and the vital national interests of both Israel and the United States, not to mention the peace and prosperity of a good part of the Middle East, depend upon it.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT