At its core, President Barack Obama's visit to the Middle East is about Iran.
Other issues will be discussed, other topics will occupy some headlines, but it is almost springtime in Iran. Dealing with Tehran's intransigence and efforts to weaponize its nuclear program is the one compelling US foreign policy priority in the region. Everything else is minor by comparison and certainly does not warrant a presidential incursion.
There may be several plausible reasons explaining why Obama chose to visit the region in this particular point in time. The innate instability and current explosiveness of the region (Syria, Egypt), reassuring allies that the US is not withdrawing from the region altogether (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan), projecting power (Iran). It could be the 2014 midterm congressional elections where no Democrat will then be accused that the president "scandalously hasn't visited Israel yet." There could be a simpler explanation: There is nothing to be gained there, so let's get it over with early in the term, leave John Kerry to manage the mess and pivot and shift US policy to where its real priorities are: east Asia.
But as Iran's elections near (June) and a diplomatic solution to the uranium enrichment impasse seems far, the president is coming to explain US policy and options. Not just to Israel but to all concerned parties.
When the White House announced the visit, the conventional wisdom in Israel was that he is coming to "reignite" the Israeli-Palestinian process. Nothing was and is farther from reality.
Obama will undoubtedly say all the right things and utter all the key phrases on the Israeli-Palestinian non-existent peace process. He will warn that the "Two-State Model" is the only viable and acceptable model for cohabitation and that the window for it to be implemented is shutting fast; He will say that every reasonable Israeli and Palestinian surely understands that the status quo "is unsustainable." He will reiterate that the Palestinians are entitled to the right of self-determination and an independent state of their own living peacefully next to Israel; He will implore them to renounce violence and get back to negotiations; He will plead with Israel to wake up before its identity as both a Jewish state and a democracy be endangered by demographics and a bi-national reality. He will say this as a concerned friend and partner in an unshakeable alliance.
He will offer America's assistance as facilitator, intermediary, present-absent in negotiations when obstacles arise. He will pledge America's commitment to advance peace, but not more than the two parties are willing to do. Bold and courageous decisions need to be made. It is imperative and inevitable that they are made but, the president will say, I cannot make them for you. I can only help mitigate fears and minimize risks.
In other words, Obama will not move beyond rhetoric because, plainly, he can't. The US has no plan, no blueprint, no game-changing sets of measures or some formula that would allow the sides to agree on where exactly a "peace process" should even begin.
Obama is not lowering expectations just to enhance later success or shield himself from disappointment. He is lowering expectations because they are low. The administration realizes the intractability of the current Israeli-Palestinian equation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not endorse the "Clinton Parameters," or the [former PM Ehud] Olmert-Abbas understandings of 2008. He has reservations about the premature establishment of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians cannot accept a process that begins "without pre-conditions" and without substantive reference to those two sets of principles which they regards as progress already made. There is nothing a US president can do to reconcile these two approaches unless he authors a fundamental paradigm shift.
The "Two-State" model may still be the only game in town in terms of the desirable final status agreement (yes, there is the rejuvenated "Jordan is Palestine" theme heard in the Israeli right as an excuse for inaction) but the paradigm leading there has been shattered by years of futility and turmoil and replaced by distrust, acrimony and suspicion.
The president, and Secretary of State Kerry would be forthcoming and committed to a process, but only after the sides present a workable and viable plan agreeable to both. Obama will not expend time, energy, US resources and power and prestige on a destined-to-fail process.
Which leaves Iran as the main thrust and issue of the president's visit.
Essentially, although in mellow tone, Obama will ask Israel to shut up and stop making weekly public threats against Iran. An Iranian nuclear capability is a regional menace, it will propel proliferation, embolden radicals, wreak havoc on what is left of stability and diminish America's power and levers. Add Pakistan's nuclear arsenal to the mix and the US is looking at a geopolitical nightmare.
Enter Israel. The president will be gracious in complimenting Israel for defining and making the Iranian issue into a global issue. Indeed it is.
He will be less sympathetic to what he, and others around the world believe Israel is doing in the last several years: "Israelizing" the Iranian threat. Turning a trans-regional threat into bilateral enmity. How, he would ask, does that help Israel?
Despite somewhat divergent intelligence reports in Tel Aviv and Washington (and within those intelligence communities) on the exact timetable of Iran becoming militarily-nuclear-capable, there seems to be no disagreement that this is where they want to go and perhaps we have already passed the point of inflection.
The sequence, Obama will explain, is just as I said it would be as early as 2008: multilateral coalition-building; approaching the UN Security Council; failing to impose UNSC sanctions; US and EU harsher sanctions; implicit threats of "other options on the table"; dialogue with UN Security Council permanent member states (P5 plus Germany); predictable failure of negotiations; appeal to direct US-Iranian talks; Iranian elections. then the US will appeal for direct talks again, in which a credible, less implicit threat of the use of force will be made. If all that produces deadlock, the US will seriously consider some form and degree of military action, come September-October.
Until then, Obama will ask Israel, you guys should seriously consider keeping silent and trust me. I've got your back.
While Netanyahu may not like the gist of Obama's appeal, it is consistent with Israeli national security thinking.
Israel's security challenges exist and manifest themselves in three separate, at times interlocking circles:
The inner circle: Palestinian terrorism of all varieties originating from and in the territories.
The regional circle: Political instability leading to military escalation, whether conventional missile threats or chemical-biological threats from neighboring countries.
The "Outer," broader circle: Primarily a nuclear Iran, but also the ominous specter of nuclear proliferation across the Middle East.
Israel's fundamental defense posture is that it must possess the prerequisite highest quality intelligence, versatile highly-technological military capabilities, credible deterrence power and diplomatic maneuvering room to deal with the first two circles. self-reliant both in its decision-making and force employment.
The third circle is almost by definition a threat that transcends Israel, and the necessary military and political capabilities required to deal with it are international or US-led. At the very least Israel is expected to be cognizant of the fact that it cannot and should not confront the threat alone. Even when military action is (partially or fully) feasible, Israeli foreign policy acknowledges that the repercussions and consequences are beyond Israel's control or ability to significantly influence.
This is the case in dealing with Iran's nuclear program.
What could have been achieved against the Iraqi reactor in Osiraq in June 1981 or, reportedly, against the Syrian installation Al Kibar in September 2007 is patently unachievable against Iran under current conditions.
If Obama succeeds in getting these points across in Israel, and in Saudi Arabia, then his trip can and should be defined as a success.