Obama’s golden outreach opportunity
March 19th, 2013
09:53 AM ET

Obama’s golden outreach opportunity

By Gabriel Kohan and Mark Donig, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Gabriel Kohan and Mark Donig are Middle East policy analysts whose work has appeared in CNN, Foreign Policy, Forbes, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The views expressed in this piece are their own.

Since the White House announced last month that President Obama would be headed to Israel, analysts have floated numerous flawed theories suggesting that the president’s trip is motivated primarily by either a desire to enhance cooperation on various security issues or to thaw the frosty relationship between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Advocates of the first theory overlook the fact that, while security issues will be addressed, this trip to Israel is not necessary for the two countries to enhance their already unprecedented security relationship – the president could accomplish the same without leaving Washington. Meanwhile, proponents of the second overestimate the impact of one more face-to-face meeting between a president and prime minister who have already met in person a number of times over the previous four years.

Rather, the greatest impact that this trip could have is not between leaders or governments, but between President Obama and the Israeli public. By using this trip to speak directly to the Israeli people and to reassure them of America’s commitment to Israel’s security, President Obama can begin to forge the kind of trust with the Israeli public that has so far eluded him, in part due to his previous requests for Israeli concessions on territory and settlements that some perceived as insensitive to Israel’s precarious security situation. In building this good faith, Obama can begin to “reset” his relationship with Israelis who may not trust today that the president will “have Israel’s back,” and can use that newly built trust to help achieve longstanding American foreign policy goals in the Middle East.

President Obama can begin to build this connection by passing the so-called “kishke (gut) test” –   that is, by demonstrating to the Israeli public that he truly emotes with the Jewish state, the value of Jewish self-determination, and the myriad security threats that Israelis face. This can be accomplished, says Middle East expert and Woodrow Wilson Center Scholar Aaron David Miller, by “defusing the notion that the President is somehow hostile, or not empathetic enough” to Israel. Miller, who served six secretaries of state between 1988 and 2003, argues that while “[Obama] is no Bill Clinton, he can be good if he’s emotive and if he’s real.”

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President Obama should “acknowledge that Israel is an exceptional country,” Miller noted recently. “It’s small. It has a dark past. It’s struggled for its existence. It lives in a dangerous neighborhood. That trope – he needs to find a way to express that.”

Passing the “kishke test” will pave the way for President Obama to gain the trust necessary from Israelis – as well as the Israeli government – to accomplish goals critical to both U.S. and Israeli interests. First, if President Obama aims to jumpstart a meaningful Israeli-Palestinian peace process that has any hope of yielding a final-status accord, he will need the Israeli public’s trust to convince the Israeli government to make meaningful concessions that would lead to a two-state outcome. Second, as long as President Obama aims to restrain any popular domestic support in Israel for a unilateral attack on Iran, he needs Israelis to believe that he is committed to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Ultimately, if the president wants to garner the full cooperation of the Israeli government on these issues, then Israelis themselves must feel that the United States will hold Israel’s hand during turbulent times rather than push it off a cliff.

Yet while the president’s expressions of empathy will be necessary, they may not be sufficient to convince the Israeli public that the United States is serious about tackling the Iranian threat. While in Israel, the president needs to “reiterate his existing commitments on prevention rather than containment” vis-a-vis Iran, says Natan Sachs, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Reiterating these commitments in the strongest terms – in Israel and for an Israeli audience – will help reassure Israelis that this president understands that the Iranian threat is not Israel’s alone to handle, and that the United States is prepared to use military force should diplomacy and sanctions fail. By reaffirming to the Israeli public that he is not bluffing, President Obama can influence the Israelis to the best of his ability to not support a military option against Iran until all diplomatic alternatives have been fully exhausted.

Surely, President Obama’s trip to Israel will involve substantive meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu, other leaders within Israel’s new coalition government, and high-level Israeli officials on matters relating to security threats emanating from across the region. Surely, too, the American and Israeli heads of state will attempt to use this trip to build stronger personal ties. Yet the greatest opportunity this trip provides to President Obama is not to build on security cooperation, or to thaw a cold relationship with Netanyahu, but to build trust with a wary Israeli public. By using this trip to reassure the public in Israel that he understands their precarious position and that America will always have Israel’s back, Obama can begin to reset ties where he can and must – with the Israeli people.

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Topics: Barack Obama • Israel • Middle East

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. AAldo Matamoros

    Israel and the Arabic Nations, always being on war for life time and the solution will not come from U.S.A. This will be a kind of combine efforts form boths parties to end the next step..the WWII and is around the corner. That's U.S.A. mission and is very hard.

    March 19, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Reply
  2. Audrey DeShields

    Obama should never trust this guy, he is not sincere and is not concerned with doing what is right,if he could he would sell us to the highest bidder

    March 19, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  3. joe anon 1

    bounce head off of then kiss the parasites whiner's wall.

    your note to their god should be a request for mercy from the parasites. of course, your note will be read and preserved for possible future blackmail.

    crawl on hands and knees the 600 miles of the jewish wall of hate and theft all the while braying, "palestinians do not exist".

    end puppet's crawl at vad yashem, theater of vampires, and weep elie weasel tears.

    March 19, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  4. JAL

    US unemployment needs to be at 6.5%. All fortune 500 companies need to host major hiring events in all major US cities, NOW.

    March 19, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Reply
    • JAL

      Chemical weapons were used in Syria within the past few days. The next step is to evac civilians and clean. No debating these steps. Safety first.

      March 19, 2013 at 8:05 pm | Reply
  5. sand

    israel is a cancer cell soon this tumor will get removed all hail kim jong il.

    March 19, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Reply
    • Name*

      Israel is chosen by god and it is in our best interest to keep up with the support. God bless israel and all those who dont believe in christ that they might find salvation in him.

      March 20, 2013 at 10:02 pm | Reply
      • Sam

        Israel is murdering women and children in the name of "defense" and all the while the hypocrite Obama says that Israel deserves more of our American Taxpaying Dollars to help them annihilate the Palestinians so Jews can steal their land. Clearly Obama is serving his master Nutty yahu and the terrorist State of Israel

        March 24, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  6. me

    I think it is pretty presumptuous of these writers to say that the president has to do anything to let the people of Israel know that America will stand behind them. This visit is just a dog and pony show and nothing more. Israel will not submit to a two state solution, because god gave them the land and come hell or high water they won't stop until the country has been cleared of Arabs. Although I do think they will keep some around for manual labor. In a couple of days he will be back in the states, and he will be happy that he doesn't have to deal with Netanyahu. A man who has done everything and anything to provoke the Palestinian people. I'm not Arab and have nothing to gain by the recognition of the Palestinian right to exist. You could nuke the middle east and I wouldn't lose a nights sleep. I just think if this dispute about who has what right should end. The world is continually paying the debt of Germany but it is not my debt, so sit down and work something out or get ready to be treated like the boy who cried wolf.

    March 19, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Reply
  7. johnny

    If only there were no possibility of any more huge financial rewards or support from USA, and oil rich countries, for either Palestine or Israel, those scheduled military confrontations – over the years – would be modest at worst.

    There could be more people with people tolerance, and peace between these countries.

    March 19, 2013 at 9:19 pm | Reply
  8. j. von hettlingen

    Obama's trip to Israel will no doubt send a message that he wants to reach out to its people. Indeed Israelis in general think Obama doesn't support Israel enough and doesn't really understand the political and cultural differences there. They think he needs to learn more about Israeli history, about how the Jews built the country. Some said Obama's intentions were good. Yet what is seen as a sign of strength in the West by offering one's hand in peace, is seen as a sign of weakness in the Middle East.

    March 20, 2013 at 6:56 am | Reply
  9. sand

    to day in was a picture of jewish infant that got stoned by palestinian fighters it was a great picture to see a jewish 2 year old child cry and bleed from the head. holocaust was the greatest.

    March 20, 2013 at 7:44 am | Reply
  10. Rick McDaniel

    Obama is clearly for the Palestinians over Israel. I don't see that as going unnoticed, by Israel.

    Obama is very sympathetic to Islam, in general.

    March 22, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Reply

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