President Barack Obama has arrived in Israel at the start of a four-day trip to the region that will include stops in the West Bank and in Jordan. It is the first visit by a U.S. president since George W. Bush visited in 2008, during the Annapolis peace negotiations, and the first of Obama's presidency.
Obama began his trip abroad by knocking his opposition at home: "It’s good to get away from Congress," he said to Netanyahu--a joke with additional poignance, given Obama's history of frosty interactions with the Israeli leader.
Obama will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday, and Jordan's King Abdullah on Friday before sightseeing in the ancient city of Petra, Jordan on Saturday.
Obama is not pushing any particular peace proposal, and White House officials have downplayed expectations of his visit, which is mainly a symbolic effort to mend fences after a controversial first term.
In 2009, Obama began his presidency with ambitious hopes to settle the region's differences once and for all, and began by pressuring the Israeli government to make new concessions to the Palestinians. That alienated Israelis, hardened Palestinian demands, and soured relations between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government.
Four years later, the U.S. presence in the Middle East is vastly diminished. U.S. troops have left Iraq and are pulling out of Afghanistan; the Arab Spring has toppled several Arab leaders, including pro-Western ones; and Osama bin Laden is dead, though Al Qaeda is resurgent across North Africa. Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon today than it was at the start of Obama's administration, and the regime has consolidated its power after a failed uprising in 2009. Palestinians remain divided between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, and Turkey continues to move in an Islamist direction, as civil war rages in Syria and spills over into Lebanon.
These are not circumstances propitious to peace negotiations. Yet they do make clear that the U.S.-Israel alliance is one of the few sources of stability in the region. Whatever his personal feelings towards Israel or the current Israeli government, it is in the interest of Obama's broader multilateralist vision, as well as in the U.S. national interest, to shore up that relationship, without which progress of any kind is impossible.