President Obama started his trip to Israel by assuring the Israelis that he is committed to their national security. He promised them that the U.S.-Israeli bond is "eternal," and described Israel as "the historic homeland of the Jewish people."
Obama's focus on this trip was predicted to be a healing of his strained relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who seemed to be siding with Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. Many Americans, including a high percentage of conservative Christians, share the goal of supporting Israel -- our greatest democratic ally in the Middle East.
But contrast Obama's visit with the story told in churches on Palm Sunday and throughout Holy Week. Jesus arrived in Jerusalem and was received by a crowd that was anxious to have him advance their national security by leading a revolt against the hated Roman occupiers. But Jesus refused to do this. On Palm Sunday he wept over Jerusalem and said, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!" (Luke 19:42).
Now Obama is not a religious leader, and he did not enter Jerusalem as Jesus did. But still, he should have focused on brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which would ease hostilities throughout the Middle East. According to a March 2012 Gallup Poll, "two-thirds of Israelis and Palestinians say they support the peace process, and solid majorities favor nonviolence over military solutions for obtaining their goals of security and self-determination."
Although the Arab Spring movements and the threat of a nuclear Iran have received more attention in recent months, the conflict between Israel and Palestine remains a major component of regional tensions in the Middle East. There is little chance that Arab hostility will diminish as long as Israel retains control over the territories seized during the Six-Day War of 1967.
Even the Israeli High Court of Justice has ruled that Israel holds the West Bank under "belligerent occupation." This is not sustainable, as history has taught us. Jews in Judea revolted against the occupation of the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries. Insurgents attacked members of the U.S. military throughout the American occupation of Iraq, 2003 to 2011. While occupations are sometimes necessary, they cannot last forever.
A focus on the peace process by Obama would not have undermined Israel's national security; in fact, it could have improved it. The U.S. will continue to support Israel's military readiness and stand with Israel against a nuclear Iran.
But since Obama does not have to worry about winning another election, he could have afforded to use the power of the presidency to do the hard and controversial work of bringing Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the bargaining table. To his credit, he did tell the Israelis that "peace with Palestinians is possible," and at a press conference with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas he said, "Palestinian people deserve an end to occupation ... they deserve a state of their own."
In the last week of his earthly life, Jesus focused on something higher than secular politics. In his second term as president, Obama can do the same.