During last night's State of the Union address, Obama's comments regarding Israel were brief. He stated: "...we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace. These are the messages I'll deliver when I travel to the Middle East next month." These words feed the frenzy of speculation surrounding the upcoming Obama visit to Israel and Palestine. Why now? Is Obama signaling a renewed focus on the Israeli-Palestinian file? Does he have a peace plan? Or is this trip really about Iran and Syria?
The answer is almost certainly more mundane. After failing to travel to Israel in his first term, Obama and his advisors would be right to assess that there probably won't be a better time to go than now, and there will certainly be worse times. However, the actual reasoning behind Obama's visit became academic the moment the visit was announced, because the mere announcement of the visit put Israeli-Palestinian peace back on the agendas of both the U.S. and Israel.
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For evidence, look at the Israeli press, full of analyses and predictions - all highly speculative - about the visit. See the leak from one of Netanyahu's top advisors - a well-known ideological hardliner - saying that settlement construction is causing Israel to lose its closest friends. Note Netanyahu's scramble to re-establish at least a pretense of support for the two-state solution, after an election in which he sought as much distance as possible from such a position. See how the announcement of Obama's visit put Israel-Palestine peace on the agenda of the negotiations over the next Israeli governing coalition.
Indeed, the announcement has generated an almost audible buzz in Israel, where a month ago people voted in large numbers if not for peace (though Meretz did double in size) then against Netanyahu's pro-settlement agenda. Israelis may not believe that a peace agreement is within reach, but most still support the two-state solution and most recognize that their nation is heading toward international pariah status. On Facebook, thousands of Israelis have already expressed support for what they hope will be Obama's message of peace. The Israeli Peace Now movement is planning a pro-peace rally in Rabin Square the night before Obama meets Netanyahu; no doubt settlers will hold their own demonstration, but the former will be far larger.
At the same time, following three years of political stalemate, and coming on the heels of Netanyahu's recent bruising election victory-that-was-still-a-defeat, and to the backdrop of what is increasingly recognized as the imminent death-by-settlements of the two-state solution, this conflict is ripe for U.S. re-engagement. Moreover, with the region in turmoil that leaves few good policy options for the Obama Administration - whether with respect to Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Bahrain, or Iran - the Israeli-Palestinian arena today has become, oddly, the best opportunity in the Middle East for the U.S. to engage and achieve real results.
To be sure, the chances of getting to a permanent status agreement under present conditions remain poor. Few still believe that an agreement is possible while Netanyahu is Israel's prime minister and Mahmoud Abbas is heading the Palestinian Authority, or in the context of the existing Fatah-Hamas schism. However, the stars are aligned today for a new U.S. policy - one in which success is defined in the short-term as saving the two-state solution, and in the medium-term as initiating a credible political process that lays the groundwork for a permanent status agreement in the future.
In short, the announcement of the upcoming visit of Obama to Israel and Palestine was a game-changer. This was probably not part of the Obama Administration's calculus when the trip was scheduled, and it's a safe bet that Obama and his advisors aren't thrilled at the growing expectations surrounding the visit. They surely recognize the danger that this visit could become a repeat of Obama's inaugural trip to the Middle East, during which his famous Cairo speech inspired the region but also set the stage for widespread disappointment when the Obama Administration's policies failed to deliver on the expectations that had been raised. They should also recognize that failure to act now will mean the imminent end of the two-state solution, and with it the further diminution of U.S. standing in the international arena, the likelihood of renewed and wider-spread violence, the continued deterioration of Israel toward pariah state status, and the end of the dream of an Israel that is both a Jewish state and a democracy.
For all these reasons, it is vital that President Obama seizes the opportunity that exists today for a historic re-set in his policy vis-à-vis Israel-Palestine. With his visit, he can and must signal to the parties that he is back in the game, that he is playing to win, and that his new star quarterback, Secretary of State John Kerry, has his backing to call aggressive plays in order to move the ball decisively down the field, toward the goal line of a two-state solution.