The last time Barack Obama visited Israel, in 2008, was actually the first time he had a run-in with Benjamin Netanyahu. Both men were then only candidates for top office. According to an account given to me at the time by Netanyahu's national security adviser, Uzi Arad, Netanyahu delivered the first of his many lectures to Obama on that trip. The Israeli hard-liner imperiously told then-Sen. Obama that the problem of Iran and its nuclear program must be solved before the Palestinian issue. Obama did not agree with this "sequencing" idea and, upon taking office the following January, immediately sought to force Netanyahu to freeze Jewish settlements so peace talks could begin. He was unsuccessful. And so the two embarked on the notoriously cantankerous relationship that has taken them through the last four years.
There is no reason to think that Obama’s trip this time—his first to Israel as president—will end up any different. Obama and Netanyahu will likely leave the meeting room with sour looks on their faces, as they invariably have after many a White House summit. So despite what Ambassador Dan Shapiro described as a “very urgent agenda," it was hardly surprising that White House press secretary Jay Carney sought to lower expectations for the trip on Wednesday, saying, “It’s not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals.… That is not the purpose of this visit.”
The two leaders will, of course, still have a lot to talk about. If Israeli press reports are right, Obama will visit Israel on March 20, which happens to be the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. That harks back to a time of considerable American hubris, when government officials used to assert that “the road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad”; in other words, a display of U.S. might in Iraq might somehow cow the Palestinians and Arabs into acquiescence and instill fear in Iran and other nations with nuclear ambitions. Pretty much the opposite occurred. So Obama and Netanyahu will no doubt have an extensive chat about one of the many ill-effects of that misbegotten war: the empowerment of Iran. They will also discuss the spreading jihadist violence in Syria and elsewhere around the region. Obama will seek to restrain Netanyahu not just over a potential military strike against Iran but also over launching additional strikes in or around Syria, which could cause the sort of “spillover” into a broader war that everyone in the region fears.
Obama will also be picking up the pieces from his own failed first-term strategy. At the beginning of his presidency, he ambitiously sought to implement a Mideast strategy that would change all of the underlying dynamics in the region at once. He tried to win back the favor of the Arab and Muslim nations, bring everyone on board against Iran and its nuclear program (while overconfidently extending an "outstretched hand" to Iran), and simultaneously push ahead on peace between the Israelis and Palestinians as a way of making it all come together. None of this worked either, and the upheaval of the Arab Spring has removed many of Washington’s long-cultivated interlocutors and replaced them in some cases with Islamist parties and groups, which are far more hostile to Israel.
So it’s pretty hard to peer across the debris of the last decade of failed American efforts and spy any road toward peace right now, notwithstanding Obama’s newly hopeful rhetoric and the considerable ambitions of his new secretary of State, John Kerry, to make his mark. Shapiro told Israeli reporters that Obama wants to explore ways of "bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiation table." But the same intractable conditions that have prevented that for the past six years persist today. The Palestinian Authority, which is in control of the West Bank, wants to negotiate, but the more powerful Hamas, which runs Gaza, won’t think about it or meet the basic preconditions of accepting Israel’s existence and renouncing terrorism. And Netanyahu will not negotiate with Hamas. Despite polls showing that most Israelis want a two-state solution, most have also given up hope for a Palestinian partner and have developed a kind of peace lethargy behind their reinforced security “fence” and “Iron Dome” missile-defense system.
In his 2004 memoir, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, longtime peace negotiator—and former Obama adviser—Dennis Ross described Netanyahu as "insufferable" because of his uncompromising views. Thanks to a recent election in which his party lost seats, Netanyahu is somewhat weaker today, while Obama is riding a new wave of popularity. But that will do little to budge Bibi toward peace or affect the underlying dynamics in the region.