Barack Obama’s first presidential visit to Israel is easily dismissed as more about mood and symbols than substance. In fact, it offers a vital chance to rebuild the trust between Israel and the US, which is dangerously frayed at a moment when the Middle East – from the civil war in Syria, the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear programme and the domestic instability in Egypt and Iraq – looks a more dangerous neighbourhood than ever.
Sad to say, Mr Obama’s three days in the region cannot be expected to produce much progress towards a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor is it likely to see an easing of White House reluctance to arm the rebels in neighbouring Syria. Nor – on the issue that will surely top the agenda – will any new ultimatum be delivered to Tehran. Indeed, the diplomatic temperature over the latter’s nuclear ambitions seems to have dropped a fraction since last autumn, when Israel talked openly of a unilateral military strike.
But such low expectations do at least provide a breathing space for Mr Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu to build a better relationship, after the rancour that dominated the US President’s first term and culminated in clear indications from Israel’s Prime Minister that he would prefer a Mitt Romney victory. With Mr Obama the clear winner in November, and Mr Netanyahu now leading a newly agreed coalition, the two leaders are fated to work together for some time yet. Both need a successful summit.
This week, Mr Obama has a rare opportunity to dispel scepticism about his commitment to Israel. He must also show that the US is not losing interest in the Middle East. The presidential schedule – including visits to a US-funded anti-missile battery and the museum that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls – has been tailored accordingly. His central objective must be to convince Israelis, that, whatever the differences between him and Mr Netanyahu over the “red line” that Iran must not cross, his administration can be relied upon to act, if or when necessary.