Why Now, Mr. President?

AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi

Some free advice for anyone who lives in Jerusalem and hasn't been invited to meet with Barack Obama: stay out of the city center from Wednesday to Friday. One major artery, King David Street, will be shut throughout the president's visit this week, and parking will be banned on a host of others, City Hall has announced. Experience teaches that traffic will tie up in knots and buses trying to get from Point A to Point B will travel via Point Z.

Beyond gridlock—in the original sense of the word, vehicles sitting in mid-intersection going nowhere—the potential impact of the president's pilgrimage remains a mystery. The trip's timing suggests that Obama feels it absolutely urgent to renew the comatose Israeli-Palestinian peace process, now, before the weekend, before it expires. The pre-trip spin from Obama himself, from sundry off-record officials and from the punditocracy of two countries suggests that the president is coming, to quote Thomas Friedman, as "a tourist."

From an Israeli viewpoint, Air Force One will touch down at Ben-Gurion Airport less than 48 hours after Knesset approval of Benjamin Netanyahu's new government today. The prime minister managed to piece together a coalition last Friday afternoon just before the time allotted him under Israeli law ran out. Some of the incoming cabinet members found out only yesterday which ministries they have been assigned. The finance minister, Yair Lapid, has never held public office before. There will probably be only one cabinet meeting before the leader of Israel's superpower ally arrives. At that meeting, the foreign minister's chair will be empty, because Netanyahu is holding the job for his political partner, Avigdor Lieberman, on the assumption that Lieberman's career will survive his current corruption trial. For Obama to insist on coming now is like your wealthy and normally well-behaved uncle (the one to whom you owe money) coming for dinner at your new house while the painters are still at work on the walls and before your furniture has arrived. Unless he has something really important to talk about, he has forgotten his manners.

On the American political calendar, Obama is making the trip at the start of his second term. The scheduling doesn't fit his own low-key description of the trip's goals In a lengthy interview on Israeli TV last week. Obama said he wanted to "connect to the Israeli people" and to let to Bibi and Palestinian President Abbas explain "what is their strategy" on peace. If so, Americans have a right to wonder why he is taking time away from the budget battles in Washington.

Obama does not need ovations from the 1,000 Israeli university students who will fill the Jerusalem Convention Center for his speech on Thursday in order to prove to voters back home that he is pro-Israel; he is done with running for office. If his "goal on this trip is to listen" to Netanyahu and Abbas, he could have sent John Kerry. That's what the secretary of State is on the payroll for.

The moment fits more ambitious plans. The rationale for a U.S. president to deal with the Israeli-Arab conflict in his second term is precisely that he is free of electoral pressure. He can present Middle Eastern leaders with hard choices and not worry about backlash at home. And if Obama's goal in his televised speech from Jerusalem is to step around Netanyahu and inspire Israelis to reconnect to their suppressed hopes for peace—to rally public support here for a negotiating schedule he is about to drop on the new cabinet's table—then he is coming at just the right time. A look at Netanyahu's new coalition shows that there is no time to lose.

To form a coalition, Netanyahu had to bridge one of Israel's ideological divides or another. In the end, he jury-rigged a government that includes the most dedicated opponents of a two-state solution, Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party, and the most vocal advocate of that solution, ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni. Livni was given responsibility for negotiating with the Palestinians—but the agreement with Bennett creates a ministerial committee to oversee the negotiations, in which Bennett is part of a hawkish majority. Even more important, Bennett's party received control of the two ministries, Housing and Industry, that are the heavy machinery of settlement building. The Defense Ministry, responsible for governing occupied territory, is now in the hands of Moshe Ya'alon, an ex-general from Netanyahu's Likud party. Speaking to me in the past, Ya'alon waved aside the idea that settlements are an obstacle to a peace agreement. "We've ruled [the West Bank] for over 40 years," and Israel could go on ruling it indefinitely, he said, if the Palestinians did not accept the Likud's conditions for an agreement.

In other words, whatever strength the Israeli right lost at the polls, it regained in coalition talks. Bennett and Partners are happy to build, and build, and build, while Livni struggles to restart negotiations. Accelerated settlement construction will not add to Palestinian trust of her efforts. It could add fuel to a new Palestinian uprising that threatens to ignite any hour now. While Washington carefully tries to build relations with new Arab regimes and to keep the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty intact, the last thing it needs is nightly newscasts of Israeli soldiers confronting Palestinian demonstrators.

The alternative to that scenario is an American push for peace: dates for returning to talks, guidelines for the agenda, a vision of the results—and a successful appeal to Israeli public opinion for support. In that case, the pieces of string holding together Netanyahu's new coalition will come undone.

So if Obama is arriving the day after tomorrow to stick his hands into the messy work of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, his timing is impeccable. If he's coming to make nice and see the sights, the trip does not even justify the Jerusalem traffic jams.

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