No sweeping breakthroughs are expected from President Barack Obama's trip to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. Obama has carefully lowered expectations. But that doesn't mean the visit, which begins today, isn't important.
It's been billed as an opportunity for a broad, strategic conversation between allies, the first of Obama's second term and their first meeting since the re-election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who just days ago managed to assemble a new ruling coalition.
The issues confronting the two nations include Iran's nuclear ambitions, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and dramatic changes ushered in by the Arab Spring uprisings. Obama should reaffirm the United States' singular bond with Israel, and he and Netanyahu should make an effort to warm up their frosty personal relationship.
There is no separation between the two countries on the goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But there appears to be on the questions of how long to rely on negotiation and economic sanctions, and where the red line lies that would signal that approach has failed.
A nuclear Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel that Netanyahu cannot allow. But the American people, weary of war after a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, have little stomach for another one. The two leaders need to find common ground that accommodates both those realities.
When Obama addressed the Muslim world from Cairo as a neophyte president in 2009, he stirred hopes that his administration would usher in a new, more nuanced approach to the region. Those expectations were dashed as domestic economic issues commanded Obama's attention in his first term. And in the interim, the Arab Spring changed the face of the Middle East and created new foreign policy challenges separate from, but every bit as demanding, as the issue of a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinian people that dominated the region when Obama spoke in Cairo.
There's now a historic opportunity for democracy to take root across the region. Obama should use this trip to reaffirm his support for that hopeful future. The United States' history as the world's champion of self-determination and individual rights is a key advantage in the effort to win the hearts and minds of the region's people. It's also one key to ensuring that nations in turmoil there, such as Syria, or with fledgling democracies, such as Egypt and Libya, don't devolve into failed states hospitable to terrorists. That's why Obama's plan to move beyond meetings with government officials and talk directly to the Israeli people Thursday, in the major speech of the trip, is a good one. The entire Middle East will be listening.
He should strike some of the notes from his Cairo speech, particularly his "unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose."
When that vision takes root, stability and prosperity will follow. That's the best possible future for the region and the United States.