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Why is Obama going to Israel?

Despite the close relationship between the two countries, it is unusual for sitting US presidents to visit Israel. Since the Jewish state was formed in 1948, only four US presidents have visited whilst in office – Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W Bush. Although Barack Obama has been hammered for failing to visit Israel during his first term, he was not alone in this fact; as the premier's website points out, Bush did not visit the country until his eighth year as president. This has not stopped intense speculation about Obama's upcoming visit to Tel Aviv, which is scheduled for March 20th.

One reason the trip is such a talking point is perhaps the same reason that Obama has been criticised for not visiting before: his problematic relationship with Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. During the US presidential campaign, Netanyahu was criticised for openly supporting Obama's rival, Mitt Romney, while in 2011, Obama was caught on tape complaining about the Israeli PM with French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Several grandstanding speeches by Netanyahu have contained challenges to the US president to show his commitment to Israel. It is safe to say that there is no love lost between the two men, who have now both been elected for second terms.

So why is Obama going to Israel? Speculation in the domestic media is rife: does Obama want to launch a new peace process, decide on action in Iran, recalibrate his relationship with Bibi? Newsday, an Israeli publication, suggests that the US president may want to pressurise Netanyahu as he forms his next coalition, pushing him towards the centrist parties that did unexpectedly well in the election, rather than the intensely hawkish pro-settlement parties that are perhaps a more natural partnership.

While Obama is unlikely to intervene too directly in the domestic politics of another country, the prospect of continued, ramped up settlement activity is certainly a concern for the US. Settler politicians such as Naftali Bennett have openly expressed the goal of changing the "facts on the ground" and making a Palestinian state an impossibility. The increased prominence of these ultra-nationalist parties during the recent election campaign has pushed the broader discourse in Israel further and further away from diplomacy and a two-state solution. During the election campaign, Bibi said that not a single settlement would be dismantled if he was elected for a second term. As the chances of a two state solution look ever slimmer, it is entirely possible that – as other newspapers have speculated – Obama wants to at least open the door for the peace process resuming.

His trip will also involve a visit to the West Bank, an important boost for beleaguered Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Yet given the current stalemate – and the fact that Netanyahu's Likud party has already merged with the ultra-hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu – a resumed peace process seems like a distant goal.

There is also the question of Iran's nuclear programme, which despite being a shared area of concern for Israel and the US, has caused tension between the allies. Israel favours military intervention, with Netanyahu implying last year that he would take unilateral action if the US did not provide back up. Conversely, Obama prefers sanctions and talks. Over at CNN, former US Middle East adviser Aaron David Miller suggests that the trip may be an attempt to set the stage for co-operation on these two points: "the two must begin to test whether or not they can develop a strategic understanding of how to sequence and deal with Iran and the Palestinian issue. The fact is neither can accomplish their objectives without much closer cooperation."

The tense relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has been well-documented, but this does not define the entire relationship between two closely allied countries. Both are probably aware that they need to find a way of communicating with each other in a more functional way. A state visit is one way of publically demonstrating the intention to work together, even if few real changes are made as a result.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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