Russian President Vladimir Putin will be in Israel next week for a short stay, during the course of which he will meet with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other senior officials. The Russian leader will also attend the unveiling ceremony of a memorial erected in Netanya in honor of Red Army soldiers killed during World War II.
Many other foreign leaders have fit Israel into their tight schedules including Côte d’Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara, who was just here.
Jonathan Tobin writes in Commentary Magazine, “Putin may be beset by demonstrations protesting his authoritarian rule at home and his support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and his equivocal attitude toward Iran’s nuclear program won’t win him any popularity contests in Israel. But his public attitude toward the Jewish state is friendly, even going so far as to call Israel a ‘Russian-speaking country.’ His visit is more than just a diplomatic exercise as it sends a powerful message about Israel’s legitimacy to hostile Middle East nations that still look to Russia for support.”
Many citizens here are wondering: if Putin can visit, then where is US President Barack Obama? Ever since his 2009 speech in Cairo in which he outrageously compared the situation in Gaza to the Holocaust and also appeared to support the idea that the only reason for Israel’s existence is based on the Holocaust when he said, “the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied,” Israelis have wondered aloud when the president would make it a priority to visit the region he claims to care so much about.
On the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation’s website, a headline once declared “Obama Hearts Israel... Oh, Really?” BUT A look at which US presidents have visited the country is revealing.
Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson never made it a point to come.
It wasn’t until 26 years after the creation of the State of Israel that Richard Nixon became the first sitting US president ever to visit when he arrived on June 16, 1974.
Gerald Ford didn’t visit, but Jimmy Carter did in March 1979 when he spoke at the Knesset following the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Ronald Reagan – who was considered very friendly toward Israel – did not visit and neither did George H.W. Bush.
President Bill Clinton holds the record with four visits to Jerusalem during his two terms in office.
President George W. Bush (also considered a good friend) visited Israel only in his second term in January 2008 and again in May.
Clearly, it is not an absolute necessity for the sitting US president – even those considered to be “good friends” – to visit Israel to demonstrate support.
Voters in the US will not, for the most part, base their decision on a presidential trip to Israel.
And there are valid reasons why Obama may not want to visit Israel at this time.
A visit by the president may solidify the argument that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the central component that needs to be resolved to attain regional stability. Looking at Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, it is clear this is not the case.
Politically it would look bad for Obama, since a visit at this time would appear to be a result of pressure from critics. No US president is interested in such a scenario.
Strategically, Obama has been trying to woo the Arabs, and a visit to Israel would place him in an awkward position.
On the other hand, when Obama decided it was important enough to reach out to the Arab world by going to Cairo, Israelis perceived his disinterest in visiting Israel almost as a rejection.
And that sentiment of rejection continued throughout the next three years when his relationship with Israel seemed to waver based on his poor personal relationship with Netanyahu – a relationship which, at this point, has yet to drastically improve.
At a time when Israel is surrounded by unstable regimes, it would certainly be helpful if the US president came to visit its “strongest ally in the Middle East” to show unwavering support in the face of rising Islamic powers in the region.
If other US presidents – who did not claim to be as friendly to Israel as Obama does – and Putin can visit, then so can Obama.
As Michael Omer-Man wrote in these pages, “despite the lack of concrete results stemming from Nixon’s 1974 trip to Jerusalem, perhaps the most consequential aspect of his sojourn was the visit itself... Though not every succeeding president has made the trip, Nixon’s and the subsequent visits by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have set expectations in Israel (as well as in certain American political circles) for the sitting US president to meet his counterparts not only in Washington but also in Jerusalem.”
That being said, while there are those who would be completely enamored by an Obama visit and would enforce a positive opinion of the president, for others it is already too late.
Obama has cemented himself as a president who chooses to reach out to the Arab world over Israel and a visit here at this point would not change the minds of the informed and the perceptive.
We are told that Obama has been extremely helpful behind the scenes in numerous instances especially concerning Iran, the Iron Dome antimissile system and in the UN Security Council, and for this we should certainly be grateful.
But informed Israeli citizens judge the president based on what they see, and what they see is a pro-Arab president who has rejected a strongly visible and close relationship with Israel.
A visit here will no longer change that perception.