The White House has announced that President Obama will visit Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank sometime this spring. It will be the first time Obama has visited the region as president. Fox News reported that Obama and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the trip in January after Obama congratulated Netanyahu on his re-election. The sojourn will give Obama a chance to reestablish his administration’s support for Israel and improve his image with Israeli citizens.
Obama has often been criticized by those who feel he has put distance between America and its support of Israel. However, what Obama has instead done is reestablish that American foreign policy will be driven first and foremost by American interests. He has refused to kowtow to the powerful pro-Israel lobby or to allow Netanyahu to influence his foreign policy and control the conversation within the United States. During his visit, Obama will seek to improve our relationship with Netanyahu, but it is Netanyahu who needs to repair the damage.
Netanyahu has been less than a friend to Obama and America. His actions, such as interfering in the race between Romney and Obama or his blatant disinterest in advancing good faith negotiations for a Palestinian state, have jeopardized the long standing relationship between America and Israel. An opportunity to reinforce the relationship between Israel and America remains, but it requires Netanyahu to act in a more responsible, adult manner.
Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu was a talking point among the GOP during the 2012 election. Many Republicans doubted that Obama was a "true friend" to Israel and Netanyahu. They pointed to an instance where Obama refused to meet with Netanyahu when they were both in New York for UN meetings as an example of the fractured relationship. However, Obama’s actions have time and again proven that he is a friend to Israel. The administration boycotted the Durban Conference, refused to support any argument that Zionism is racist, supported Israel during the Gaza flotilla, intervened when the Israeli embassy in Egypt was attacked, voted against Palestinian statehood, voted against granting Palestine non-member observer status, and allocated $205 million in foreign military aid to support the “Iron Dome” missile defense system.
These are not the actions of a president that does not support Israel. As Edgar Bronfman wrote in the Israeli daily Haaretz, "Obama has not adopted the swagger and bravado of his predecessors in terms of his support for Israel – he has simply done it."
The source of the angst over Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu is his refusal to rubber stamp Netanyahu’s policies and Obama’s steadfast resolve to support good faith negotiations for a Palestinian state. Netanyahu was upset when Obama refused to set a specific "red line" that Iran could not cross in its nuclear power development program. Crossing the boundary would trigger military action against Iran. Rather than allow Netanyahu to dictate American foreign policy, Obama signaled that America has its own red line – a nuclear weapon – that will govern American response.
Netanyahu was also upset that Obama reiterated the long standing U.S. policy requesting Israel return to the 1967 borders to support a Palestinian state. The United States has always had an unofficial policy that a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine was dependent on the 1967 Israeli borders. Obama was the "first president to formally endorse the policy." Obama showed once again that America foreign policy interests will be controlled and governed by American officials and not Benjamin Netanyahu.
If anything, it is Netanyahu who has exacerbated the relationship between Israel and America. Obama correctly pointed out that continuing to build settlements on the West Bank and other areas would hamper good faith negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, explained that "How can you negotiate when they are stealing the land?" Netanyahu reacted by approving the building of thousands of housing units. In 2011, he authorized "1,500 housing units in Har Homa and Pisgat Zeev, which are outside the 1967 borders." After the UN voted to give Palestine non-member observer state status, Netanyahu authorized another 3,000 units to be built in the West Bank.
Netanyahu has been duly called to task for attempting to interject himself into American politics. The Kadima Party said that Netanyahu could not be trusted to "to be a robust, effective partner with Washington." Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Jerusalem Post that Netanyahu broke all the rules by intervening in U.S. elections. Olmert said Netanyahu’s efforts on behalf of Romney and "an American billionaire [Sheldon Adelson]" represented a breach of basic rules between allies.
On the other hand, Obama has been lauded by senior Israeli officials for his support. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated that he "can hardly remember a better period of American support and backing." Haim Saban, the chairman of Univision and the founder of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, wrote "Ask any senior Israeli official involved in national security, and he will tell you that the strategic relationship between the United States and Israel has never been stronger than under President Obama."
Obama will join former presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush as the only sitting presidents to visit Israel. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said "The start of the president’s second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel." According to Netanyahu’s office, Obama’s visit represents "an important opportunity to underscore the friendship and strong partnership between Israel and the United States."
That opportunity is there, but only if Netanyahu begins to act in good faith.