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Obama's Mideast Visit Is Useful, Regardless of 'Why'

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Beyond the high-profile ceremonies and cordial meetings with Israeli leaders and society, the president's discussion with Jordanian King Abdullah may be the most momentous item on his visit this week to the Middle East. The Hashemite Kingdom has played host to four waves of refugees, in 1948, 1967, 1990, and in 2003. Today, Jordan is receiving a new, potentially destabilizing influx from Syria's civil war. More than just the refugees, Jordan has to worry about Lebanon and Syria spilling over with help from Iran and Qatar. Most of all, the king inherited his father's title -- and credibility -- as a peacemaker among and for the Arabs, and we could all use some of that magic right now.

The question of why President Obama is visiting Israel now, at the start of his second and final term in the White House, is not seriously subject to speculation. Only those privy to the his actual decision process and intimate conversations can know for sure what his intention is: To improbably launch some new peace process? To lay to rest any hopes for a tangible peace process, so we can all get on with other, presumably more pressing issues? To rebuild trust with that vocal minority of American Jews who will never fully trust him anyway? To re-plant the U.S. flag in the Levant at a time when Russia and China are playing both spoilers and sponsors in their own right?

Until someone reveals the president's intentions, beyond merely guessing, we can at least consider the benefits of his latest visit to the region.

Restoring U.S. prestige in the Middle East: Obviously, withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be seen as victories, and the internal nature and complicated outcome of the Arab Spring makes it difficult for Obama to take a victory lap the way George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton could in post-Cold War Europe. The Middle East will be messy for a while yet.

The Great Game: As far as Russia and China are concerned, it will definitely be useful to remind them and local populations that we are back. Both nations have ramped up their exchange of Mideast energy reserves for their advanced technical and military expertise and hardware. Both have blocked efforts in the United Nations Security Council to intervene forcefully and legitimately in Syria, much as they tried in Libya, and as they continue to do regarding Iran's nuclear program. Moscow is courting the radical Islamist government in Cairo, and just this week threatening to displace the European Union in the Cyprus banking crisis. The reflexive dispatch of Russia's fleet to Syria's shores sends a powerful message in both substance and symbol. Cashing in diplomatically on the president's trip will largely depend -- again -- on the president's takeaways from his visit with King Abdullah.

Showing the love: Many of the high notes the president hits in his statements to the Israeli public will be repeats of his previous speeches in vennues like Cairo and the United Nations. But to Israelis, perhaps, it means more when these words are uttered on their own turf. As I blogged in The Huffington Post right after Netanyahu's reelection, Israel's new political landscape means Obama's approach might get more sympathy from Israelis, even though the voting demonstrated that peace talks with Palestinians are at best a secondary concern. But if Obama wants to do any further pushing on Netanyahu, he'll have a bit more credibility and a more receptive audience than he did the last time around. This matters not just for an unlikely peace initiative but also for future appeals to Israel's patience on Iran, Gaza, or Syria.

The president can use this visit to correct the optics as framed by Netanyahu's political allies here and there -- that, as John Bolton just wrote, "of all U.S. presidents since 1948, he is the most hostile to Israel." Whether in style or substance, that's an absurd assertion, as I and many others have been pointing out. But this time, both leaders seem determined to minimize any friction in their relationship. Perhaps Obama can charm the Israelis, and Netanyahu can boost himself locally by enthusiastically channeling that charm.

Hopefully, the president will have enough charm left over to give some moral support to the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. Without much hope of a full-scale political solution in the near future, he may be able to tease out some economic and security band-aids along the lines Netanyahu has espoused, to ease the immediate burdens.

The home audience: As far as domestic U.S. politics, money means votes. Nearly three-quarters of American Jews remain solid Democrats, but the Jewish establishment still tolerates -- and even enables -- the canard that Obama and the party are hostile to Israel's interests. If Democrats can overturn the perception that Israeli and Jewish leaders see them as a threat, that will help significantly when the president starts making the rounds to raise campaign money for the 2014 mid-term congressional elections. In 2016, the next Democratic nominee for president won't get as far if Jewish donors are either scared away or recruited over to the Republican side. America's 40 million-plus Evangelicals will look to see what their conservative-leaning American Jewish friends and Israel's right-wing Israeli government think about the Democratic party before they cast their own votes.

Doing right: Of course, there is a simpler explanation for the president's trip. Israel is a key ally, and American Jews are a consequential segment of American society. With the winds of change and uncertainty sweeping the region, there's every reason for the President of the United States to pay homage and demonstrate solidarity in person. Iron Dome saved Israeli lives and limited the economic costs of fighting Hamas during last year's Gaza conflict, and reassuring Israel on Iran, Syria, Gaza and Egypt makes sense in its own right.

The past five years of political and media onslaughts against Barack Obama's character and commitment to Israel -- and the Administration's belated acceptance that Netanyahu won't be altering Israel's long-term trajectory in the West Bank -- leave little reason for the president to push a peace process at the expense of more pressing international and domestic priorities. Because Netanyahu has removed Israel from the administration's "to do" list, despite significant advances in economic and military cooperation, Israel will not be in Washington's inner circle of decision-making. But this does not mean the president's state visit can't be beneficial to both sides.