Obama Kicks Off First Presidential Visit to Israel

March 20, 2013 9:56 pm Last Updated: April 3, 2013 4:43 am

Beginning his first trip to Israel with an emphasis on regional security, President Barack Obama made broad reassurances that the United States is Israel’s “greatest friend.”

But convincing the Israeli public of this message will be key for Obama to gain greater trust and political leverage in the region, according to Natan Sachs of the Saban Center at The Brookings Institution.

“The main point of the trip … is in the realm of public diplomacy,” Sachs said in a telephone interview.

Compared to his two previous presidential predecessors, Bush and Clinton, Obama has a relatively low standing popularity wise with the Israeli public. Sachs says that gaining their trust would have a tangible impact at a policy level.

“PR is important, and it has implications on the real things. It is not just about people liking the president, it is about his ability to use the trust, especially with the Israelis, to his advantage in the diplomatic sphere,” Sachs said.

Even on issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, the perception of the Israeli public of Obama can have real consequences in dealing with the Iranian threat, according to Sachs.

“If the Israelis trust him more, they are less likely to act unilaterally, which the United States much prefers they didn’t. And the more unified the message between Israel and the United States, the more likely Tehran is to hear a clear message and the more likely they are to get to the negotiation table in the next round,” Sachs said.

Existential Threats

During the first day of his four-day whirlwind trip to the region, Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly discussed the potential threats of nuclear weapons from Iran and chemical weapons from Syria.

“What was already a pretty tough neighborhood got tougher,” stated Obama during a press conference at the end of his first day in Jerusalem. The press conference was live-streamed by the White House from Jerusalem.

For his part, during the press conference and throughout the day, Netanyahu was largely right in step with Obama’s message, and emphasized security above all other issues. He pointed out how vitally important it is to prevent the dissemination of chemical weapons from Syria, as well as “Iran’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

He added an oft-repeated sentiment about Israel’s right to defend itself, particularly on the issue of Iran, saying that diplomacy must be “augmented” with self-defense.

“We have the right and the capability to defend ourselves,” said Netanyahu at the press conference packed with international media.

Obama assured Netanyahu that, concerning the $200 million currently coming from the United States to support Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system, there will be “no interruption of funding.”

And in his first public comments at the airport in Tel Aviv just after landing, Obama said that the “United States of America stands with the State of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interest.”

Meeting With Arab Leadership

Obama’s visit to the region will also include important stops in Ramallah, the West Bank, and Jordan, where he will meet with Arab leaders from the Palestinian Authority, and the King of Jordan.

U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes said in a briefing last week that Obama’s aim in meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be to reaffirm U.S. support for a two-state solution.

Rhodes said Obama will, “reaffirm our support for both Palestinian aspirations for a two-state solution, but also the important institution-building that the Palestinian authority is doing on the West Bank.”

Haim Malka, senior fellow and deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says there is a specific intention behind his stops in the West Bank.

“The president will try to convince Palestinians that he has not forgotten them, and that he is still committed to helping them secure an independent Palestinian state,” said Malka during a press briefing Wednesday.

But he added that in spite of tensions, the United States has remained one of the largest donors to Palestinians.

Both Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres expressed dedication to a two-state solution and renewed negotiations with the Palestinian Authority with “no preconditions.”

Speaking to the Israeli Public

One of the key moments of Obama’s trip will be his speech to thousands of Israelis, including many university students, at the Jerusalem Convention Center Thursday.

“This really is the true purpose of the visit—an ability for the president to speak directly to the Israeli people about the future we want to build together,” Rhodes said.

Obama will also visit some important symbolic sites, including the famed archaeological site of Petra in Jordan, the Israel Museum, and Yad Vashem holocaust museum and memorial center in Jerusalem, a youth center in Ramallah, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

On his trip to the region, Malka said Obama “understands the pitfalls, which is why the White House has been trying to manage expectations since it announced the trip.”

“Ultimately,” said Malka, “the president will urge patience and restraint on both sides—patience that diplomacy and sanctions can slow down Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and patience that resuming negotiations and abandoning violence will eventually get Palestinians an independent state.”

The visit is the first foreign trip of Obama’s second term as president, and the first visit he has ever made to Israel as president. He previously visited when he was a U.S. senator from Illinois. He is the fifth U.S. president to visit Israel.

Gidon Belmaker, Jasper Fakkert, and Tara MacIsaac contributed to this report