Kerry’s bumpy foreign tour raises stakes for Obama’s first official visit to Israel

John Kerry’s bumpy first trip abroad as secretary of State has put pressure on President Obama to show real results when he makes his first official visit to Israel later this month.

The White House has sought to play down Obama’s March 20 trip to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan as little more than a listening tour focused on Iran, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Kerry’s just-completed 10-nation tour, however, has laid bare American allies’ calls for a more aggressive U.S. posture in a region racked with conflict.

The stakes for Obama are high, especially in the wake of criticism that he didn’t visit Israel in his first term and his at-times rocky relations with leaders in the Jewish state. Kerry will join Obama on the trip.

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U.S. allies, including Great Britain, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, used their meetings with Kerry to hammer home their calls for a more forceful American engagement on the two-state solution and greater support for the 23-month-old uprising against Syria’s  President Bashar Assad. 

The rebels themselves almost caused a major diplomatic embarrassment for Kerry when they threatened to boycott a meeting with him and other foreign ministers of countries opposed to Assad because they felt the international community wasn’t doing enough to support them.

“It is high time for the international community to fully mobilize and start to move ahead” with efforts to stop the Assad regime’s repression, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said after meeting with Kerry last week. Davutoglu also expressed hope that Kerry’s trip would help build support for “a sustainable peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Four days later, Qatar’s dual prime and foreign minister mirrored those sentiments when he lectured Kerry about the administration’s reluctance to arm the rebels and press for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The two-state solution, Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said, was “at a standstill now, or maybe even dead, for all intents and purposes.”

He called on the administration to show “some real movement” on the Palestinian issue. And on Syria, he said he wished Obama’s change of heart on direct aid to the rebels “had happened some time ago, because this would have maybe lessened the death and destruction that took place in Syria.”

The calls for greater international engagement come after the administration has spent the past few weeks battling accusations that it is retrenching from such tough choices.

But some U.S. observers question whether Kerry’s trip really changes the momentum.

P.J. Crowley, a former State Department spokesman now with George Washington University, said Kerry heard a lot of the same criticism directed at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“The president has stuck by his approach for the past two years,” Crowley said. “There can be reasonable disagreement as to whether it’s the right approach or the wrong approach, but I think at this point, what’s going to change the president’s mind is a dramatic change on the ground.” 

The visit to rebel-controlled parts of Syria by opposition council president Moaz al-Khatib over the weekend, he said, was one such major development that shows real rebel progress.

As for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Crowley said the way forward depended more on the ruling coalition that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is able to cobble together more than anything Obama says or does.

“The president is not going to Israel to put his own plan on the table,” Crowley said, echoing White House spokesman Jay Carney’s assertion when the trip was first announced last month.

Still, Crowley said, second-term presidents historically have more “flexibility” to act on the world stage, and Obama could decide to make some major announcements during his trip, notably with regard to Syria. 

In his recent State of the Union address, Obama vowed the U.S. will stand with Middle East citizens “as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy.”

Lawmakers, meanwhile, felt Kerry moved too fast during his trip.

Senators complained that they weren’t briefed by their former colleague on his decision to send $60 million in direct food and medicine aid to the rebels. 

“I mean, look, we probably support the policy,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told The Hill. “But we were a little disappointed that no head’s up was given. It’s not a good way to start out and we want to make sure it does not happen again.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) objected to Kerry’s decision to give Egypt $250 million in extra aid from a pot of money she’d put a hold on as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last year.

“I’m glad he’s wrapping up this trip,” Ros-Lehtinen told The Hill, “because every stop he makes he makes more of a promise of financial aid to our so-called allies. And if he doesn’t wrap up this tour soon, we’ll be further bankrupt.”

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the new chairman, said any further funds would have to be approved by Congress.

“The money Secretary Kerry announced had already been appropriated,” Royce said in an email. “Future funding will require congressional approval. We’re going to want to see meaningful economic reform and democratic progress. Egypt has a long way to go.”