Why is Obama visiting Israel before he’s sure it has a government?

The White House insists that President Obama will go ahead and visit Israel later this month even if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not put together a governing coalition before the president arrives.

Obama is scheduled to arrive March 20. Netanyahu’s deadline for forming a governing coalition is March 16. However, it’s not clear that Netanyahu will meet that deadline. And even if he does, the views of the new ruling coalition on key issues may not have taken shape.

So why isn’t Obama willing to postpone his visit? After all, there must be limits to the kind of understandings he can reach with a leader whose government hasn’t yet been formed. Israel, a parliamentary democracy, doesn’t operate like the U.S. Netanyahu can’t be counted on to proceed with a policy unless the members of his coalition support that policy. Until we know who will be in that coalition, at least some of his important policies remain up for grabs.

Obama’s unwillingness to reschedule may have something to do with the lavishly imperial way in which he travels. The nightmarish logistics of such travel are not conducive to rescheduling.

But the more fundamental explanation may lie in the objectives of Obama’s visit. Thankfully, it appears unlikely that his objective is to make substantive progess on “peace talks” with the Palestinians — an issue as to which Netanyahu might be constrained by a coalition. Obama seems temporarily to have gotten out of the “peace” brokering business. For example, his mention of Israel during the State of the Union speech conspicuously avoided the issue.

More likely, Obama wants to persuade Netanyahu not to attack Iran. This is an issue over which Netanyahu would likely exercise decisve influence, regardless of who is in his coalition.

Moreover, as Jonathan Tobin points out, Obama cannot hope for Israeli restraint unless he convinces Israelis that the U.S. remains “committed to Israel’s security and can be trusted to do the right thing on any security-related issue.”

For this purpose, just showing up in Israel may be 90 percent of the battle — provided that Obama manages to conceal his disdain for the Jewish state.


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