A few weeks ago, I assumed that the main emphasis of President Barack Obama's upcoming visit to the Middle East would not be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Taking my cues from Secretary of State John Kerry's recently completed trip and the way the White House had been "low-balling" expectations about making any progress in restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks, I thought that the president would focus his visit largely on the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear program and the humanitarian and political crises resulting from the ever-worsening conflict in Syria.
However, after an hour-long meeting with the president and his national security staff, followed a few days later by a detailed press briefing on the president's itinerary by a Deputy National Security Advisor, it is clear that I was wrong.
Earlier this week, I was part of a group of Arab American leaders who met with President Obama and his senior advisers to discuss his visits to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Following our conversation, the White House issued a statement saying, in part, that the president "underscored that the trip is an opportunity for him to demonstrate the United States' commitment to the Palestinian people—in the West Bank and Gaza—and to partnering with the Palestinian Authority as it continues building institutions that will be necessary to build a truly independent Palestinian state".
Our discussions with the president were instructive on many levels—in particular, his interest in hearing our ideas about how to make the visit as productive and meaningful as possible. We offered a range of suggestions including the need to reach out directly to the Palestinian people: the business community struggling to create jobs; young people in need of hope; Christians concerned about their future in the Holy Land; women seeking empowerment; and those who are committed to a non-violent approach to challenging the occupation.
We emphasized that just as he intended, in Israel, to speak directly to the Israeli people, making clear to them his understanding of their history and his commitment to their security, it would be equally important to find opportunities to address remarks directly to ordinary Palestinians. In this context, we found promising the post-meeting statement issued by the White House and the details of the final trip schedule.
As has been made clear on several occasions by Administration officials, the president will not use this visit to offer a plan to immediately restart negotiations. Conditions simply do not exist for a peace-making initiative to bear fruit. The newly constituted Israeli government leans too far to the right. The Palestinian house is also in disarray, with reconciliation talks still stalled.
Given this, the best the president can do, in the short term, is attempt to speak directly to both peoples reasserting his commitment to them and to a peaceful future in an effort to change the discourse in both societies away from the cynicism and hardline views that have made progress toward peace so difficult.
Seen in this light, almost every aspect of the president's visit contains a message to the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. He will want to win their confidence, demonstrating that he understands their histories and current realities. He will then note the dangers inherent in the current trajectory of regional developments and pose the challenges and opportunities that making peace will entail.
He will engage the leadership of both communities, but he will also go beyond the leaders to speak directly to young Israelis and Palestinians about their futures.
No doubt, both Iran and the Arab Spring will be topics of conversation in Israel and Jordan. While in Jordan, the president will want to support the changes underway and will encourage the King to continue on the path of reform. He will also focus on the impact of the humanitarian crisis which has seen hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees coming into Jordan, testing that country's resources and political order.
Another aspect of the Syrian war and the Middle East's tumultuous last decade is the increased vulnerability of the region's Christians. In a surprise move the White House added a stopover in Bethlehem between the President's visit to Israel and his trip to Jordan. Going to that city's Church of the Nativity will allow the president to focus attention on the two thousand year presence of Christians not only in the Holy Land, but in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq.
It is important to note that while in Bethlehem the president's team will be able to see first-hand the impact of the occupation on Palestinian daily life. First and foremost will be the 30’ wall that snakes around the little city cutting Bethlehem off from Jerusalem. And then there is the Israeli settlement of Har Homa. While the Israelis refer to this development as a "neighborhood" of Jerusalem, it is actually built on land seized in large part from Bethlehem. It will be recalled that in the late 1990's then President Bill Clinton strongly objected to Prime Minister Netanyahu's plans to build Har Homa on the green hill of Jabal Abul Ghnaim. Netanyahu defied the U.S. Today that green space is gone, replaced by a settlement that is home to 15,000 Israelis (with expansion plans calling for a few thousand more). It, like the wall, separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
This will be the president's first trip of his second term and while he will not table a peace plan, every indication is that he remains committed to an Israeli-Palestinian peace. This trip is designed to be the beginning of a process to engage the Israeli and Palestinian peoples (and American Jews and Arab Americans) in an effort to win new support for peace-making efforts that will follow.