MADRID – Now that the dust has settled on President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated trip to Israel, it is possible to analyze the significance of the visit. The trip – the first foreign visit of his second term – carries important implications for US foreign policy. Rather than providing the breakthrough for which many had hoped, it demonstrated that Obama – unlike other second-term US presidents, who have staked their legacies on foreign policy – is interested primarily in securing a domestic legacy.
Obama’s ambitions are centered on reversing the arrangement that has dominated US politics since Richard Nixon’s election in 1968. He hopes to ensure that a moderate Democratic Party forms the core of domestic politics and policymaking, with the Republican Party consigned to the periphery.
The centerpiece of Obama’s visit was his address in Jerusalem, in which – employing his characteristically compelling rhetoric – he won over the skeptical Israeli public by appealing to their sense of morality, asking them to imagine the conflict from a Palestinian perspective. And yet, while the speech was widely considered a successful exercise in public diplomacy, it did not herald renewed US involvement in peace negotiations. Rather, it portends a continuation of America’s hands-off approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Obama’s decision to address the Israeli people instead of their leaders is telling. He recognizes that the current political climate is not conducive to successful peace negotiations. In Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has crafted a center-right coalition dominated by prominent pro-settlement leaders, including Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home Party and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon of Netanyahu’s Likud. The only notable exception, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, seems to have been appointed merely to provide a veneer of official commitment to the peace process. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a moderate, is removed from the peace process (and has himself sent mixed signals about a two-state solution).