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Low expectations for Obama's Israel visit

Expectations are understandably low. But the U.S. must keep pressing for a two-state solution.

March 19, 2013
  • President Obama will visit Israel this week.
President Obama will visit Israel this week. (Jose Luis Magana / Associated…)

President Obama will arrive in Israel on Wednesday for his first visit since being elected in 2008. We wish him the best, but frankly, we have very low expectations.

Indeed, it's hard to figure out why he's making the trip at all. The peace process has been at a standstill for years. Israelis and Palestinians are stuck, at the moment, on the issue of settlements — there are now more than 300,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, and the Palestinians have refused to reopen negotiations unless Israel agrees to a settlement freeze.

And the settlement issue is an easy one compared with the difficult problems down the road, such as how to draw the borders of the two proposed states, what to do about Palestinian refugees who have been living in camps outside the country for more than 60 years, and how to share water resources.

Obama's trip comes at a moment when Palestinians are disillusioned and Palestinian leaders who support a two-state solution are weak. Hamas remains in power in the Gaza Strip, and far from moderating its positions, its top leader, Khaled Meshaal, recently delivered a chilling speech declaring his goal of "liberating" not just West Bank cities such as Ramallah, but Israeli cities such as Jaffa and Haifa as well.

Nor is Israel in a mood for cutting deals. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was just reelected, and his new coalition includes some centrists but also the hard-liners of his Likud Party, the Yisrael Beiteinu party of Avigdor Lieberman and the nationalist Jewish Home party of Naftali Bennett. On Monday, Netanyahu announced the appointment of Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon as defense minister. During a 2010 meeting with The Times' editorial board, Yaalon insisted, among other things, that "withdrawal from Judea and Samaria will give another boost to the jihadists" and create "Hamastan" on the West Bank.

It would be one thing if Obama intended to work aggressively to revive the peace talks, expending some of his political capital to bring both sides to the table. But his advisors acknowledge that that's not the point of the trip. Although he will also visit Ramallah and Amman, Jordan, the chief purpose seems to be to prove to Israelis that he supports them by visiting the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem and saying the right words at the grave of Zionism's founding father, Theodor Herzl. After all, Obama has taken heat from Israel's supporters ever since a June 2009 trip in which he did not visit Israel but instead told an audience in Cairo that he wanted "a new beginning" with Muslims around the world and an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

These days, some wonder whether the U.S. will lose interest in the region now that deep reserves of oil and gas have been found in North America, potentially reducing American dependence on Middle East oil. Others wonder aloud whether the time for a two-state solution has come and gone.

We hope the answer to both questions is no. Two states for two peoples may be a messy and imperfect solution, but no one has offered a realistic, workable alternative. In the months ahead, Secretary of State John Kerry, with strong backing from Obama, should press forcefully for progress on this important international challenge.

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