Rarely has a US president prepared to visit Israel amid such low expectations of what he can achieve there. By the time Barack Obama arrives, Binyamin Netanyahu’s government will have been sworn in, a coalition composed of the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc: Yesh Atid, founded by former TV personality Yair Lapid; and Jewish Home, a party linked to the West Bank settler movement led by Naftali Bennett.
The coalition is uniquely suited to dealing with domestic issues, such as the exemptions to military service granted to the ultra-orthodox. But it is uniquely unsuited to unravelling the occupation in the West Bank.
On Washington’s side, there is even a debate about whether Mr Obama, who got so badly burned in his first term by Mr Netanyahu’s refusal to stop settlement construction, wants to get re-engaged in this quagmire. He is after all a foreign policy pragmatist, who has learned to spend political capital at home only on things he can actually change abroad. The Republican war dance around the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defence secretary would be a small taste of things to come if Mr Obama seriously challenged the well-established formula of his former adviser Dennis Ross, which amounts to keeping in lock step with Israel on anything it deems to affect its security.
The counter view is that the choice of both John Kerry as secretary of state and Mr Hagel are indications that he does want to shake things up. The pressure point this time could come from saying publicly that if Mr Netanyahu and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, cannot get around a table to agree a formula, the US will formulate one unilaterally. This would be a more muscular version of what became known as theClinton parameters, formulated by Bill ( not Hillary). And the formula would not differ much now – although its practical effects surely would, with 300,000 settlers in the West Bank.
With no wish to address the occupation on the Israeli side, and the wilting belief on the Palestinian one that they will ever inhabit anything more substantial than a bantustan, an imposed solution also appears unlikely.
But all those lovers of the status quo should ask themselves what they are supporting. Palestinians whose role is to talk have not been talking, and the militants whose role is to fight Israel have, by and large, not been fighting. If a third intifada were to materialise, the world will condemn it saying, rightly, that violence is not the way. But what has waiting for Godot achieved? The status quo does not mean that things on the ground don’t change. They are changing all the time. It means that the international community is complicit through inaction. The message that Mr Obama should give to Mr Netanyahu is that this situation is both dangerous and unpredictable