A presidential trip designed as little more than a polite visit aimed at strengthening relations — while avoiding thorny issues — could be forced to face unexpectedly tough and substantive questions as conditions on the ground in Israel and the West Bank change rapidly.
Palestinian unrest in the occupied West Bank and an unresolved post-election coalition process in Israel are dominating developments in the region even as aides to Barack Obama plan his first trip as president to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.
In the West Bank, tensions have been on the rise, leading some to speculate that an all-out flare-up, perhaps in the shape of a third intifada, could be imminent. Meanwhile, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still struggling to build a new coalition. This is forcing the White House to prepare for talks with a government whose makeup is still unknown.
The administration came up with a three-pronged agenda for Obama’s Middle East tour, which starts on March 20. The intended agenda focuses on Iran’s nuclear program, on Syria’s civil war, which threatens to disintegrate the country, and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Israeli official announcements, the Palestinian issue has received third billing. But recent events could force Obama to make the Palestinian issue a priority.
“I’d be astonished if he does not use the unsurpassed platform as president of the United States to try and revive public interest in the peace process,” said David Makovsky, a prominent scholar and analyst of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He made clear however, that when dealing with the issue, Obama will try to speak to Israel’s public opinion rather than presenting specific plans and ideas.
Unrest in the West Bank has been building in recent weeks, even before the announcement of Obama’s visit, following a decision by some Palestinians detained by Israel to go on a hunger strike to protest their imprisonment without trial. Thousands of Palestinians expressed their support for the hunger strikers in mass demonstrations.