President Obama departed Tuesday night on his first trip to Israel, a largely symbolic visit that even his aides say isn’t likely to forge progress on peace with Palestinians, the Syrian civil war or Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The president will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has clashed with Mr. Obama on a broad range of security issues. But in a tactic reminiscent of Mr. Obama’s handling of congressional Republicans at home, the centerpiece of the president’s visit will be a speech to the Israeli people, rather than tough talks with Mr. Netanyahu or an address to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
White House aides have described the president’s speech at a Jerusalem community center as a chance to shape hearts and minds of young Israelis on the future security of the Middle East.
The speech appears to be an effort at “going over Netanyahu’s head,” said James Phillips, an analyst on the Middle East at the conservative Heritage Foundation. But he said Mr. Obama still needs Mr. Netanyahu’s cooperation, for example, on Iran, where the Israeli has been pressing for more aggressive action to halt the suspected production of weapons-grade nuclear material.
The president could find it a tough slog winning over the Israeli public, too. A new poll in that country found that only 10 percent of Israelis view Mr. Obama favorably, while 32 percent say they don’t like him but respect him, 19 percent had a flatly unfavorable opinion and a further 17 percent had a “highly unfavorable” opinion.
Last October, Mr. Obama said he had been delaying a trip to Israel because, “I want to make sure that we are actually moving something forward.” Now that he’s going, with virtually no prospects for progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues, presidential aides are defending the trip as an opportunity for a fresh start with the newly formed Israeli government.
“His visit is not about trying to lay down a new initiative or complete our work on a particular issue,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters in advance of the trip. “Frankly, there’s value in traveling precisely at a time when there is a new government in Israel and a new government in the United States and just having a broad strategic conversation.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said it’s important for the U.S. to reaffirm “our determination to use all available means to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and in pledging to work with Israel to meet the regional challenges caused by the civil war within Syria.”
The four-day trip also will take Mr. Obama to the West Bank, where he will meet in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“The peace process is dead but not buried,” Mr. Phillips said. “It’s kind of a zombie process that walks on. Israelis understandably are not willing to take concrete risks merely for the promise of peace. I’m very doubtful that any Israeli government would give up territory in the West Bank until it can be sure that territory will not be used to launch rockets against it. As long as Hamas poses such a threat, a comprehensive solution is impossible.”
Mr. Obama also will visit Bethlehem to tour the Church of the Nativity, on the site where Christian traditional says that Jesus was born.
The final leg of the trip will take Mr. Obama to Jordan, where he will tour the ancient sites of Petra and meet with King Abdullah to discuss issues including the crisis in Syria.