Three Reasons Mr. Obama Isn't Going to Jerusalem

If President Obama decided to visit Israel now, he would appear to be caving to political pressure.

Obama_120404_03.jpg
By + More

Mr. Obama went to Washington, then to Cairo. But even as his likely campaign-trail foe and conservatives hammer him over his chilly relations with Israel, experts say Mr. Obama won't be going to Jerusalem any time soon.

Mitt Romney, who is close to securing the Republican nomination, has said President Barack Obama "chastised" Israel and has been soft on Iran, the Jewish state's biggest enemy. Romney says if voters send him to the White House, his first official overseas trip will be to Israel.

The conservative wing of the Republican Party also believes Obama has given short shrift to what experts say is still Washington's closest Middle Eastern ally. "Obama Hearts Israel ... Oh, Really?" blares a headline on the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation's website.

In March, the president faced critics at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual conference in Washington to defend his record.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

"Over the last three years, as president of the United States, I have kept my commitments to the state of Israel," Obama said. "At every crucial juncture, at every fork in the road, we have been there for Israel. Every single time."

Pro-Israel conservatives immediately blasted the president's remarks, but experts say Air Force One won't be touching down on Israeli soil this year. Here are three reasons why:

Strategy. Obama took office in 2009, and almost immediately took a harder stance toward Israel than recent U.S. presidents before him. He also went to Cairo for a seminal speech that was billed by the White House as offering an olive branch to the Arab world. "At the time, there were tensions between new presidents Obama and Netanyahu," says Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, referring to Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu. "But if Obama had gone to Israel after the Cairo speech, it would have sent the opposite message to the Arab world than he intended.

Brown calls the lack of an Israeli trip "part of an overall approach" and adds, "if the president hasn't gone by now, he probably won't go--at least not this year."

Politics. Even if the president felt a need to travel across the Atlantic to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Netanyahu as Washington and Tel Aviv stare down Iran, a trip is highly unlikely. "The problem now is if you go, you look like you would be giving in to pressure," says Larry Korb of the Center for American Progress.

Some pundits have opined Obama's strategy will undercut his support among Jewish-American voters. Not so, says Brown.

"Most Jewish-Americans base their votes on a whole host of issues," says Brown. "Plus, the flavor of the GOP right now on cultural issues is no place for most Jewish-American voters. It is a big issue, however, for specific people. So the president might lose a very small share of what already is a very small share of the total electorate."

[Read Navy Adds Muscle in Middle East to Counter Iran.]

Heavy numbers of Jewish-American voters reside in Florida and New York. Experts say the Israeli issue won't be the determining factor in the Sunshine State, always a key swing state, come November. As for the Empire State, Brown quips: "Any Democratic president who loses New York isn't getting re-elected."

Precedent. There is something of a conventional wisdom that all American presidents are required to visit Israel. But that's not the case. Since Israel's creation in 1948, more U.S. presidents--including Obama--have opted against visiting the Jewish state. Four have made an official visit: Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Notably, Nixon and Bush went in their second terms. But seven U.S. presidents did not go: Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan.

"The way people perceive it is as soon as a president takes the oath of office, he goes right over there," says Korb. "But that's just not the case. Many presidents have instead let their secretary of state handle that trip."