By Oren Kessler
TEL AVIV — President Barack Obama is visiting Israel this week, his first presidential visit to the country since he took office. The White House has been keen to lower expectations, stressing that the president will not bring a specific peace initiative to the region, but is arriving mainly "to listen." For many Israelis, it's about time.
For while Israelis are generally a pro-American lot, Obama may encounter a tougher crowd than on his last visit, five years ago, as a campaigning senator. Many here were put off by his failure to visit the country during his first term, and by what they saw as his nonchalance at the toppling of Hosni Mubarak and rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Obama's notoriously testy relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn't help, though this week's swearing-in of a new government coalition, including centrist factions led by Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, may portend more amicable ties.
Obama can always count on a certain swathe of Israel's public — subscribers to Haaretz and voters who tilt Labor and leftward — to support him about as reliably as does his Democratic base at home. But to reach the rest of the populace (two-thirds of it, if recent elections are indicative), he'll need some guidelines. As the Ten Commandments guided the Israelites through a perilous amphibious crossing to the Promised Land, a new set could help Obama navigate a sea of hostile Israelis.
1. Thou shalt not link.
"Linkage," in a Mideast policy context, is the idea that the region's manifold ills can only be healed by solving the Arab-Israeli conflict. If that quarrel were resolved — the conventional thinking goes — the Arab and Muslim worlds will no longer suffer Islamists, autocrats and terrorists, but edge closer to liberal democracy, economic development and sympathetic ties with the West. But as Jeffrey Goldberg wrote earlier this year at Bloomberg, the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace has nothing to do with the unraveling of Syria or Yemen, inter-ethnic violence in Bahrain or Iraq, violence in Libya and Algeria, or the rise of fundamentalists in Egypt or Pakistan. In 2008, Obama described the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace as a "sore" infecting all of U.S. foreign policy and serving as the pretext for terrorism. In the lead-up to this trip, the president has been more generous in conceding that Israel lives in a "tough neighborhood" with no shortage of homegrown problems. He'll have to stick to the second track if he hopes to leave Jerusalem with more friends than he came with.