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What does Obama hope to accomplish by visiting Israel?

Today’s Washington Post (print edition) proclaimed that “Obama’s trip to Israel aims to fix missteps.” But for what purpose? The Post suggests that Obama needs to fix the mistakes of his previous approach to Israel so that he can “revive” his “ill-fated effort to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.”

I don’t doubt that President Obama would like to revive that effort. And it’s reasonable for Obama to conclude, albeit belatedly, that without gaining a bit of trust from Benjamin Netanyahu (and from Israelis generally), any renewed effort at securing a peace agreement will almost surely be ill-fated.

It seems clear to me, however, that Obama’s trip is primarily about Iran, not “peace” between Israelis and Palestinians.

When Obama asks himself what can go wrong in his second administration, an Israeli attack on Iran must rank high on his list. Such an attack would scramble the playing board in unpredictable ways. Possible consequences include oil shortages, war in the Middle East, and terrorist attacks on U.S. interests.

It follows that dissuading Netanyahu from attacking Iran almost certainly is the primary objective of Obama’s visit. Accomplishing that objective requires that he put his relationship with Netanyahu, and with Israelis, on a better footing. At the same time, Obama will want to make clear to Netanyahu that Israel will pay a steep price in terms of its relationship with the U.S. if it proceeds unilaterally against Iran.

An obvious tension exists between these two requirements. Obama must somehow persuade Netanyahu that he will support an attack when the time is ripe, while (1) arguing that the time isn’t near ripe now and (2) preserving his flexibility to argue in the future that the time still isn’t ripe.

The Washington Post’s story about the purposes of Obama’s trip never gets around to mentioning Iran. This is ironic, since just above that story, the Post runs a lengthy article about how harsh economic sanctions have not weakened the Iranian regime’s grip on power or its resolve to develop nuclear weapons.

According to the Post, “U.S. and European officials and diplomats acknowledge that they are waiting for clear signs that Ayatollah Khamenei is willing to change course.” Are they really? Can they be that stupid?

Perhaps. But Israel can’t afford to be.

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