US President Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to the Middle East has sparked
speculation about why he is keen on making such a visit at this time. For one,
2013 is the year in which Obama would like to translate his replenished
political capital into hard-won domestic legislative achievements – particularly
in the areas of immigration, gun control, income inequality and climate
Obama’s advisors may tell him that he will have the remainder of
his second term until 2016 to focus on foreign policy and that if he does not
score domestic achievements in 2013 while he enjoys renewed political capital,
he will be a weaker foreign policy president in his final years. So their advice
might be that in the meantime he should focus on the domestic agenda and leave
much of the foreign policy to Secretary of State John Kerry.
But there is
a Middle East foreign policy issue that cannot wait beyond 2013: Iran and the
question of whether there is a diplomatic breakthrough or breakdown. If it is a
breakdown, the immediate question would be how this affects Obama’s policy of
preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Will the US attack? Will Israel
attack? These weighty questions will test the Obama relationship with Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2013 in a way no other issue has since their
rocky relationship began in 2009.
In this context, connecting with the
Israeli public during his visit can only help Obama in his dealings with the
Netanyahu government during this crucial year. The Obama Administration has
noticed that on major decisions, Netanyahu is very mindful of domestic public
opinion. Netanyahu saw polls on trading Hamas prisoners for Gilad Shalit and
went ahead with it despite his opposition to the move; he also acceded to public
opposition to a limited apology to Turkey in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara
affair, despite a wide array of Israeli security and other officials calling for
an apology to improve ties with Ankara.
In short, given the power of
public opinion, persuading the Israeli public of his commitment to Israel’s
security could significantly help Obama in dealing with Netanyahu over the
Indeed, while the Iran issue may be more urgent for Obama,
he could also use his visit to convince the Israeli and Palestinian publics not
to give up hope in the pursuit of peace and a two-state solution. Top Obama
Administration officials are well aware that Israeli and Palestinian polling
demonstrates overall support for a two-state solution, but that each side
believes the other is not committed and that therefore it will not
While there is awareness in Washington that the peace issue did
not drive the Israeli election campaign, the Lapid vote seems to suggest that
Israelis do see progress on the Palestinian issue as a ticket for greater
economic normalcy and for avoiding growing isolation and
Obama is aware that the master of outreach to the
public when it comes to the Mideast was president Bill Clinton.
unique among American leaders in being able to persuade Israelis that he was
pro-Israeli and Palestinians that he was pro-Palestinian, and there was no
contradiction in his ability to project genuine empathy with both sides. Obama
hopes to be able to follow suit.
Indeed, it is possible to win public
opinion, without overtly using the public to score points against the incumbent
leadership – but rather as a constructive force going forward. Israelis tend to
want to see American presidents with a multi-tiered identification with Israel,
recognizing its historic attachment to the land, its aspirations for peace, its
security and economic needs, and the fact that for now the Mideast is not
Switzerland and that therefore Israel requires strong ties with the
At the moment, however, public opinion among both Israelis and
Palestinians is fatigued, skeptical and downright cynical about the intentions
of the other side. If these negative trends continue, even the incremental
progress Secretary Kerry might attempt during 2013 – with Obama coming in more
extensively at a later date – will be that much harder.
both publics not to give up on a two-state solution is more urgent than a
specific policy initiative, especially since the Obama Administration does not
yet know what sort of coalition will be configured in Israel, nor who will
emerge as the key players on the Israeli side. Therefore, it is unlikely that
Obama will come with a detailed diplomatic plan at this time. Kerry can always
bring more substantial ideas in the coming months when hopefully public opinion
on both sides will be more receptive.
Meanwhile Obama could suggest ways
of fostering favorable public opinion. For example, Israel has many ways to
signal to the Palestinians that it wants to reduce its control in the West Bank
even if a grand deal is not likely to be struck anytime soon. The Palestinians
can signal as well.
Abbas could declare that Israel, as well as the
Palestinians, has an ongoing historic connection to the land.
urge synchronized political messaging, namely a consistent articulation by the
leaders of why peace serves their national interest and is not a giveaway to the
other side. For Israel, this means saying how peace enables it to be a Jewish
nation-state and remain democratic.
For Palestinians, it means
articulating that continued impasse is likely to bring radicalization, which
could destroy the goal of Palestine as a contemporary society with a modern
economy. Tone from the top makes a difference.
Another useful message
from the Obama visit would be that people who favor coexistence are not
penalized. And this should be made crystal clear to the Palestinian
Indeed, there are rumors that Obama may make an announcement that
the US is delivering withheld aid to the Palestinians, just as Israel has
resumed revenue transfers. The US needs to find an unmistakable way to make
clear that it is providing the aid in appreciation of Prime Minister Salam
Fayyad’s great strides in transparent governance and economic
The US withheld funds because Abbas went to the UN,
deepening the PA financial crisis. However, the Palestinians demonstrated
against Fayyad and not Abbas for not receiving their salaries on time, and the
prime minister’s popularity declined.
The US has tiptoed around Fayyad
for a while, believing strong interaction with him could alienate Abbas.
However, it turns out Fayyad is getting all the blame for Abbas’s actions. It is
time that he gets some credit in the eyes of the Palestinian public,
One cannot assume that the status quo is sustainable and the PA is
there to stay in the West Bank. Indeed, without regular assistance, the PA could
Polling data shows an upsurge of support for Palestinian
violence against Israelis, despite explicit public opposition by Abbas and
Fayyad. Nobody can say when a third intifada could erupt. But current tensions
should be noted and allayed.
Of course, reaching out to both publics
should be genuine, demonstrating American commitment to the future of both
peoples. This approach could also impact on wider policy goals, enhancing
Obama’s relationships with Netanyahu, Abbas and Fayyad.
asked recently by a reporter to explain why he keeps going to the public when it
comes to the ongoing federal budgetary crisis, Obama indicated that one of t he
lessons of his first term was that he wants to keep public opinion on his
The president now seems to realize that solutions do not suddenly
appear. Rather, you need to set the public foundation for any policy to give it
a good chance for success.David Makovsky is a senior fellow at the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy.