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
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT