Obama's Mideast Trip: What To Expect

President Obama during a 2012 meeting with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
By  | 

This will be President Obama's first trip to the region as president, and the first foreign trip of his second term. While former Presidents Carter and Clinton traveled to the Mideast with the express purpose of peace, this president won't be arriving with any approximation of a peace plan. In a recent interview, he acknowledged that things "lined up a little bit differently" with his predecessors, and that his primary purpose will be "to listen." Iran is expected be at the top of the agenda, with Syria following close behind.

Air Force One touches down in Tel Aviv Wednesday morning, and the president will be welcomed by both Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Obama will then view a U.S.-funded Iron Dome battery before heading to a meeting with Peres, where he will make a statement, and then on to Netanyahu's residence for another meeting and press conference.

The president has described his relationship with Netanyahu as "business-like," and there will be time and space for plenty of blunt exchange. On Iran, the Israeli prime minister has said that a "clear and credible military threat" must be on the table.

The two men differ when it comes to a red line for any sort of action, so the president hopes to a) assure Netanyahu he is serious about preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, b) prove that he is serious about protecting Israel and c) convince Netanyahu that unilateral action would be imprudent, from the U.S. perspective.

Israel is also worried about instability in Syria and the potential for loose chemical and biological weapons to be used against its citizens. Regional security and counter-terrorism will be on the agenda.

Netanyahu will also want to know how much the federal government's sequester cuts are going to affect Israel - and projects like Iron Dome. The Israelis stand to lose $155 million of $3.1 billion in annual aid.

Early Thursday, Mr. Obama will visit the Israel Museum to see the Dead Sea Scrolls. He'll also tour a technology expo with Israeli officials. After that, he travels to Ramallah for a meeting, working lunch, and short press conference with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. When asked what message he might be bringing to "Abu Mazen," Mr. Obama said this to Israeli TV: "I will say that trying to unilaterally go to for example the United Nations and do an end run around Israel is not going to be successful."

But the United States does want to show a level of commitment to a skeptical Palestinian public. And in a nod to U.S. investment in and support for Palestinian institution-building, the president and Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad will also visit a youth center before Mr. Obama heads back to Jerusalem.

Earlier this week, the president said his primary mission is to "connect" with the Israeli public: "I have this fantasy that I can put on a disguise, wear a fake mustache, and I could wander through Tel Aviv, go to a bar and have a conversation, go down to a university and meet with some students in a setting where it wasn't as formal and you know we're going to try to find as many opportunities as a I can to interact directly with the Israeli people." Later Thursday, he'll have the opportunity to address mostly students at the International Convention Center before attending a dinner hosted by Peres.

There is a sense that the new coalition government may reflect a public more interested in socioeconomic issues and less interested in bombing Iran. With the government still in a bit of flux, the White House still doesn't quite know who it's dealing with or what the public really thinks.

There will be a lot of talk about the enduring bonds between the countries and the United States' unwavering commitment to Israel's security, but most likely few major announcements. Israel may put forward some good faith measures along the lines of limiting settlement construction, transferring tax revenues to the Palestinians, or transferring some sort of additional assistance to the Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank.

Friday, the president will lay wreaths at the tombs of both Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin before visiting Yad Vashem, where he'll lay a wreath and make remarks. He will then go to Bethlehem, where he'll tour the Church of the Nativity.

Then it's off to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah - complete with arrival ceremony, press conference, and dinner.

Jordan's precarious geopolitical position has left it largely dependent on the Gulf States, but the United States has forked over $100 million to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis and wants to show support for the country's somewhat tenuous attempt at domestic reform. There is no current plan for the president to visit a refugee camp, but the White House hopes a stop so close to Syria's border will show that the president isn't backing away from a problem with no easy solution.

The president will travel to Petra Saturday morning before heading home.