President Obama embarks for Israel on Tuesday for the first foreign trip of his second term.
Obama will seek to mend ties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the broader Israeli public in a visit weighted with domestic and international politics.
The White House and outside observers see the three-day trip, which also includes stops in the West Bank and Jordan, as an opportunity for Obama to improve his image while addressing the prospects of military action in Iran and Syria.
“There will be a broad agenda for our governments to address while the president is in Israel,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said in a conference call ahead of the trip. “More important than that, in some respects, this is an opportunity for the president to speak directly to the Israeli people.”
The president of the liberal pro-Israel group J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, for his part called it an “opportunity to provide a preemptive kiss to the Israeli people.”
White House aides said Monday that Obama will seek to hammer home a message that the U.S. is 100 percent committed to Israel’s security, despite views to the contrary. Republicans have repeatedly criticized Obama for not offering strong enough backing for Israel’s defense against Iran, and the issue played an unusually large role in the 2012 presidential election.
“When it comes to this administration’s commitment to Israel’s security, I think I could point you to comments by Prime Minister Netanyahu, by [former Defense Minister] Ehud Barak and others who have offered their opinions about the fact that no previous administration has done so much for Israel’s security as this administration has,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday. “And the president will certainly talk about that.”
While the administration has been steadfast in describing the trip as a listening tour rather than an effort to impose any new roadmap for peace, the choice of Israel and the West Bank as the first second-term trip signals its importance to Obama.
And the reasons go beyond a desire for Obama to improve his image in Israel.
In an interview with Israeli TV, Obama said Iran is only about a year away from developing a nuclear bomb. He said he and Netanyahu would discuss options for preventing a nuclear Iran, including military force.
A day before leaving for Israel, Obama sent a message to the Iranian government — and a message of solidarity with the Israeli government — making clear that the nation will further isolate itself from the international community if it seeks a nuclear program.
“This is the choice now before Iran’s leaders,” Obama said during a video address to the Iranian people, who are celebrating the Iranian New Year.
The president is also coming under increased domestic and international pressure to arm rebels in Syria, just after the second anniversary of an uprising that has seen more than 70,000 people killed.
Israel has pressured Obama to take a tougher stance against Iran and has warned that it will act to prevent that country from accessing nuclear weapons if the U.S. fails to act.
Israel’s government has also reportedly pressured Obama to launch airstrikes against Syria to prevent any of that country’s missiles from falling into the hands of Hezbollah.
Obama raised eyebrows in Israel with his 2009 speech to the Muslim World in Cairo and his declaration that Israeli settlements inside the boundaries of a future Palestinian state were illegitimate, echoing many Arabs’ position regarding the state of Israel itself.
The speech Obama is set to deliver Thursday has also raised controversy.
Some observers are offended that Obama will be speaking at a convention hall rather than addressing the Knesset, as previous presidents have done.
And student groups in Israel have protested Obama’s decision to invite only students from 10 of Israel’s 60 universities and colleges.
Rhodes defended the decision to bypass the Israeli legislature in favor of a speech to university students at the Jerusalem International Convention Center as a logical choice to reach out to young Israelis, while asserting the White House’s “deep respect for the Knesset as the seat of Israeli democracy.” And at the White House briefing on Monday, Carney said Obama’s speech at the convention center is “entirely appropriate” and comes as the president has a “very packed” schedule across the country.
“The president will speak to all of the Israeli people in front of an audience of young Israelis who ... have it within their hands ... the power to shape Israel’s future,” Carney said. “He will be meeting with Israeli leaders and government officials, of course, and the president’s, I think, message will be heard by Israelis who are both members of the Knesset and who are not.”
Aaron Keyak, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that while many people feel confident about the U.S. commitment to Israel when it comes to security, Obama needs to offer more “clarity” on the issue.
“The president’s policies when it comes to Israel’s safety and security have been unmatched,” Keyak said. “I’ve heard him say numerous times that he would work to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But he has to continue saying that to the largest audiences and venues.”
“If you listen to what he says, his words are pretty clear, but sometimes in a long speech, the message gets lost,” Keyak said. “But in the context of giving a speech in the Holy Land, visiting ancient sites in Israel, reiterating what he’s been saying, I think will be helpful for anyone who was confused before.”
One source who has been active in U.S.-Israel relations said the perception of Obama in Israel isn’t as bad as it seems.
“Yes, there’s been some tension there,” the source said. “But at the end of the day, I think the Israelis know who their closest ally is. And they know that without a doubt.”
Still the source acknowledged that there is some continued sensitivity and tension around Iran.
“Everything having to do with Iran is under a microscope,” the source said. “And the smallest word or nuance can be amplified. But the fact that Obama is heading to Israel on his first foreign trip of his second administration speaks volumes. And I think that the Israelis are genuinely excited by this.”