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.”
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.