On Tuesday President Barack Obama embarked on his least anticipated trip to the Middle East that will take him to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.
Unlike his 2009 visit to Cairo where he delivered his famous address to the Arab and Muslim world, this visit will lack any substantive efforts to put the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians on track. In essence Mr. Obama has all but turned his back on peace in the Middle East and instead will focus instead on Iran as the most important issue in the region.
Having no plans of his own to reinvigorate peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Obama's appears to be in retreat against Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who deliberately stalled every attempt Obama tried to make toward achieving a peace settlement. As for Netanyahu, the visit by the president of the United States that does not include any attempt to pressure him into making concessions to the Palestinians is a triumph. For the past several years, Netanyahu, quite relentlessly and successfully, as evident of this trip, made Iran's nuclear program, not the Arab-Israeli conflict, the only serious problem in the Middle East.
As a result, and in a complete turnaround of his previous Middle East policy during his first term, Obama will not be pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze illegal settlement buildings in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem as a step toward ending the conflict. The president will most likely use his Tel Aviv address as a belated Israeli counter balance to his Cairo address to the Muslim world.
Mr. Obama, moreover, will attempt to endear himself to the Israeli public and assure them of strong U.S. support for Israel especially against Iran and in case the conflict in Syria spirals out of control. The trip, more importantly, will be a nod to Israel's Republican and conservative backers in Washington whom they accused Mr. Obama of being "anti-Israel" especially during his first term-- using the fact that he had never visited Israel as a president prior to this trip.
During his meeting with Arab American leaders in Washington last week, President Obama according to several Arab news reports told his astonished listeners that they should not expect anything to come out from this trip. By downplaying the expectation of his visit to region, Mr. Obama is supporting the contention that his visit will be devoid of any substantive immediate steps to reinvigorate an American push for peace between Arabs and Israelis. At least not this year.
For Ray Hanania, a Palestinian American columnist based in Chicago, however, Obama's trip to Israel will be a trip of "atonement." Hanania told me that " Obama is trying to atone for the sins many Israelis and their backers in Washington accused him of committing when he tried to pressure Netanyahu to freeze the illegal settlements building in Jerusalem during his first term."
According to this line of thinking which is prevalent in the Arab World, Obama is showing weakness vis-à-vis Israel which will eventually undermine America's image in the Arab world. An image he tried hard in the past four years to rebuild.
The second leg of Mr. Obama's itinerary will be a visit to the Palestinian areas and Jordan and despite having cash incentives for both, his meetings with the leaders there will be more of a side show of the main event in Tel Aviv. Even though Mr. Obama will meet with both president Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, he will offer them no hope of ending the conflict any time soon. But rather will admonish them for going to the UN, instead of negotiations with Israel, to achieve their statehood.
In Jordan, Mr. Obama will meet with King Abdullah II and discuss Arab and Western efforts to unseat the Syrian dictator Bashhar al Assad from power. But more importantly, however, King Abdullah will use the visit to push for more economic aid he desperately needs, especially after the expiration of 2008-2013 nonbinding U.S.-Jordanian Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that offered Jordan $660 million a year of joint American military and economic assistance. Mr. Obama will also encourage King Abdullah to push for more political and economic reform despite resistance from the Jordanian extremist right wing establishment -- deeply entrenched within and supported by the Jordanian secret police, the Mukhabrat -- that opposes any democratic or economic reform that might endanger its interest.