WASHINGTON — President Obama will visit Israel in March. This will be his first visit as president, and third visit overall. His agenda also includes visits to the West Bank and Jordan. His trip will take place just days after Israel’s new government is formed.
There could not be a better time for the president to go.
While the agenda for his trip is still being determined, some of its general contours are known. The president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are likely to discuss core peace and security issues important to both countries, such as Iran’s nuclear program, Syria’s civil war, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Fortunately, political trends are under way in both the United States and Israel that may pave the way for more activity in the Middle East peace process to the benefit of each country. In Israel, voters strengthened the center-left political parties while keeping the conservative Netanyahu in place. Likewise, in the United States, the center-left Obama was returned to office with a broad mandate yet still with a powerful conservative opposition looking over his shoulder.
So what does this mean for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking? It means that for the first time in Netanyahu’s current premiership, he has flexibility to make moves toward peace with the Palestinians that won’t jeopardize either his or his party’s leadership. The same is true for Obama, who has broad support for his policies while he also doesn’t have to worry about losing power, as the recent election was his last.
However, progress on peacemaking depends upon these two leaders creating a joint diplomatic strategy that the Palestinians will accept. Tangible progress on the contours of a diplomatic process for peacemaking therefore needs to begin at these March meetings for the peacemaking window to remain open. The political space and time available for peacemaking is not unlimited.
Beyond the peace process, it’s likely that there will be little room for disagreement between Obama and Netanyahu on critical security challenges like the unrest in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program. Nor should there be. The United States and Israel have a direct interest in preventing the violence in Syria from spiraling further out of control, as they also do in seeking to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb.
America must continue to lead on these issues, and Netanyahu will do well to align himself with Obama to show Israelis that he continues to have a strong defense relationship with America — all of which brings us to the nomination of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense.
For a while, arguments were made that Hagel was anti-Israel, not a friend of the Jews, and soft on the American-Israeli security partnership. However, countless American national security, Jewish, and Israeli leaders have debunked these attacks.
The intent of these attacks was clear: to cause panic among senators — particularly Democratic ones — so that they wouldn’t support Hagel’s nom-
ination. That failed, as all 55 Democrats plus four courageous Republicans recently voted to cut off debate about Hagel’s nomination so that he could be quickly approved. But the vote fell one short. It wasn’t enough to ultimately kill the nomination, but was enough to slow it down. Not enough to push Democrats supportive of Israel to back away from Hagel, but enough to keep the debate open so that new potentially damaging attacks could be made in the hopes of thwarting his confirmation.
Yet, while it’s likely that the final vote over Hagel will come before the end of this month — and that it will conclude with Hagel’s approval as secretary of defense — the security cost of these delays should be a cause for concern for all supporters of strong American-Israeli security relations.
Right now, the president and his team are preparing for his crucial visit to Israel, a visit that will be a cornerstone of American-Israeli security relations in the coming years. Right now, all of the president’s key security advisors need to be in place so that the visit will be a success for Israel and America.
Yet the Obama administration, which needs to adequately prepare itself to be able to address Israeli security concerns, is not fully ready to meet this challenging task because it does not yet have a secretary of defense.
Each day that we do not have a secretary of defense is one day less that the president has to help meet both American and Israeli security needs, such as preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb, dealing with the Syrian civil war, and supporting Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Time is ticking away under a cloud of uncertainty.
It’s time to end this uncertainty for both the United States and Israel and to get our country’s national security team — especially his choice for secretary of defense — in place. The president’s crucial visit to help Israel during these difficult times deserves no less.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/JoelMartinRubin. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)