Frankel: Israel visit must mark shift in foreign policy

President Barack Obama recently announced that he will visit Israel in the spring for the first time as sitting president. Obama’s visit is in part to ease tensions between him and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not make any secret of his support for former Gov. Mitt Romney in the November 2012 presidential election. 

The president is also expected to discuss Iran’s nuclear program and plans to resume negotiations with the Palestinians. In order for these negotiations to be successful, however, Obama must not appease Netanyahu, but take a firm stance against escalating violence in the region. 

Support for Israel is important, to be sure – but only to a point. The United States already contributes billions of dollars to the Israeli military each year, but Netanyahu does not think that is enough. He recently stated that an Israeli strike on Iran would have a “limited effect” and that U.S. intervention would be necessary to stymie Iran’s nuclear program.

It is important to note that Iran’s nuclear program is far from complete, and the “intelligence” that informs Israeli policy towards Iran amounts to nothing more than speculation. Despite the lack of concrete evidence that Iran poses an imminent threat, Israel is sending out warning shots into Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the region, by way of airstrikes.

Of course, the Israeli government expects unilateral support from the U.S., as per previous policy. This time, however, the stakes are far too high. While Iran may not be an imminent threat at this juncture, continued Israeli strikes on Syria will further strain tensions between Iran and Israel.

Israel’s actions have the potential to provoke a massive conflict in the region of which the U.S. cannot afford to be a part. What Netanyahu is asking for is just unreasonable. Unfortunately, there is a good chance, should conflict break out between Israel and another country, that the U.S. will intervene. In Washington, even the slightest disapproval of Israel is seen as politically incorrect.

The president’s upcoming visit to Israel is a prime opportunity to induce a shift in policy towards Israel. Obama no longer has to worry about his re-election prospects. He can make decisions based on what is truly best for the nation rather than what’s best for his political career.

The best thing for Obama to do is to discourage Netanyahu from going further with the attacks on Syria. In order to do so, the president must be firm in setting limits for military support. There is little to no chance that the Israeli government would aggressively pursue a war with Iran if they were not sure that they had the unwavering backing of the U.S.

Obama is at a critical point. His discussions with Netanyahu will likely influence the trajectory of Middle Eastern politics for years to come. They will also potentially determine whether or not the U.S. lands itself in yet another military quagmire. There is a limit to the amount of support the U.S. can provide Israel with, and Netanyahu is rapidly approaching it.