Barack Obama is heading to the Middle East in March. The President’s first overseas trip of his second term will include stops in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. The administration says Iran, Syria and the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process are on the agenda.
In fact, Obama’s ambassador in Israel Wednesday morning said the president will come with an “urgent” peacemaking agenda.
Some Israelis will applaud the prospects of reviving peace talks that have been nearly non-existent for the last four years. But there’s also a potent sense of skepticism in Israeli politics when it comes to the Palestinian issue.
Newly-elected members of the Israeli Knesset took the oath of office Thursday at the parliament building in Jerusalem. Among the parties that did well in the recent national election was the Jewish Home party. Its leader campaigned on a promise to prevent the ultimate goal of the US-sponsored peace process: The creation of an independent Palestinian state.
If Obama hopes to persuade Israelis to return to negotiations with the Palestinians, he could be in for some serious push-back.
Jewish Home lawmaker Avi Wortzman said, “the results of the election in Israel show that people are asking their leaders to deal with domestic issues. Right now is not the time to try and revive the peace process.”
If the American president wants his first state visit to Israel to succeed, he would be wise to lower expectations, said political analyst Shmuel Rosner, who writes for the Jewish Journal.
“He shouldn’t aim too high. He shouldn’t make any promises,” Rosner said. “And I think by this time, Obama is probably experienced enough to know that making promises such as, ‘we are going to have peace within a year or two years,’ like he said at the beginning of his first term would not be the wisest thing to do.”
Rosner said he believes President Obama’s main focus when he comes to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be something different altogether.
“I think the timing of the visit is more about Iran than about the Palestinian peace process,” Rosner said. “The Palestinians could wait for two or three more months. However, on Iran, the president has to make sure that him and the prime minister are on the same page. Let me remind you that the prime minister spoke at the UN and draw a red line. People saw it and the red line is coming this summer. So, for President Obama to come here in the spring.”
If the administration can first avert confrontation with Iran, Rosner suggested, the opportunity for renewing peace talks could then present itself.
But on the Palestinian side, there is also no small amount skepticism about Obama’s upcoming visit. Nashat Aqtash is a professor of communications at Bir Zeit University. The American president might have good intentions, he said. But that’s not enough.
“The Israelis are not sincere about finding a two-state solution. They just want a negotiation for the sake of it, for a public relations campaign, you know. The visit of President Obama might help in this. Not more than that,” Aqtash said.
Aqtash said one problem for Obama is that the Palestinian public has lost faith in President Mahmoud Abbas – the leader most closely associated with the failed peace process. At the same time, he says Hamas – the Islamic militant group that’s opposed to negotiations with Israel – is gaining in popularity.
At Tuesday’s Knesset ceremony, Israeli President Shimon Peres suggested that the peace process needs to be on the government’s agenda. He said successful negotiations with the Palestinians are a key part of Israel’s security.