Why is Obama going to Israel?

A cyclist passes a billboard near the hotel where President Obama will be staying in Jerusalem, when he arrives on March 20 for his two-day visit.
(Jim Hollander / EPA)

President Obama is visiting Israel this week, the first foreign trip of his second term. Some commentators have criticized the tour as a diversion from the president’s intention to pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region. Why go to Israel now, they ask, and anger the Arabs at a time of rising Middle Eastern turmoil? Others claim that the trip is merely a maneuver designed to achieve some memorable photo-ops rather than to advance crucial American interests.

Indeed, the president could have traveled farther east and to a less controversial country. But the fact remains that the United States is economically, militarily and strategically engaged in the Middle East. And Israel, a nation of only 8 million and the size of New Jersey, keeps chaos from completely engulfing the area.

Consider Egypt. Under its peace treaty with Israel, Egypt receives U.S. aid that prevents its economy from collapse and preserves American influence in Cairo. Peace with Israel also means that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood cannot give free rein to its offshoot, the terrorist organization Hamas. In fact, the need to preserve peace with Israel has persuaded Egyptian leaders to play a constructive role in stopping Hamas rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Even so, jihadist forces have killed Egyptians in Sinai and fired rockets at Jordan. Without Israel, those forces would spread unchecked as far north as Lebanon.


And Lebanon is dominated by another terrorist organization, Hezbollah. That group is armed with 70,000 rockets, has murdered civilians abroad and aided the Bashar Assad regime’s slaughtering of tens of thousands of Syrians. But Israel has effectively deterred Hezbollah, confining its regional influence and blocking its stated vision of creating “a greater Islamic republic governed by … Iran.” Syria, for its part, long dreamed of annexing Lebanon but refrained for fear of Israeli intervention. If not for Israel, Lebanon as we know it might not even exist.

Syria also had designs on Jordan. In 1970, when Syria threatened to invade the country, Israel mobilized its army in Jordan’s defense. Today, as the burden of Syrian refugees renders the Hashemite kingdom vulnerable to domestic upheaval and sectarian violence in neighboring Iraq, Jordan’s enemies know that Israel stands beside it. And Jordan stands with Israel and the United States in the search for peace. Just last summer, nearly 20 years after Jordan signed its own treaty with Israel, King Abdullah II hosted an effort to resume direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Regrettably, the Palestinian Authority walked away.

That is the same Palestinian Authority established with Israel and the United States by the 1993 Oslo agreement and which both countries hope will be a partner in reaching a solution of two states for two peoples. The Palestinians cite Israel’s settlements as a reason for not negotiating, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured Congress in 2011 that “in any peace agreement … some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders.”

Until then, the Palestinian Authority remains extensively dependent on the Jewish state. Israel facilitates international trade for the Palestinians, supplies them with water and electricity, and furnishes thousands of jobs. In spite of the authority’s attempt to reconcile with Hamas leaders dedicated to Israel’s destruction, Israeli and Palestinian security forces cooperate in the West Bank. But after Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas swiftly overthrew the authority and its police there and created a terrorist enclave. Without Israel, the West Bank, too, could be overtaken by terrorists.

Hamas and other terrorist groups are backed by Iran, which is pursuing military nuclear capabilities. Israel was the first country to expose the Iranian nuclear program. Armed with nuclear bombs, we warned, Iran could commandeer the vast oil sources of the Persian Gulf, provide terrorists with devastating weapons and compel other Middle Eastern states to acquire similar capabilities. Unstable states would amass nuclear arsenals. Our warnings, amplified by our insistence on the right to defend ourselves, spurred the international community to act. Without Israel, Iran would have long ago become a nuclear power.

Iran regularly threatens “to wipe Israel off the map.” So what would that map look like without the Jewish state? It would show a Middle East fragmented by raging civil conflicts, overrun by terrorists and primed to explode with the deadliest weapons. That is a map with little room for pro-Western governments or a strategic American presence.

Fortunately, the United States has an asset in the Middle East that is economically and politically stable, militarily robust, fiercely democratic and deeply appreciative of American aid. With defense cuts looming and its troops leaving the region, the United States can be confident that there remains one country capable of defending itself by itself and upholding vital American interests. “In a region of shifting alliances, Israel is America’s unwavering ally,” Prime Minister Netanyahu told Congress. “Israel has always been pro-American. Israel will always be pro-American.” That is why Obama is going to Israel.

Michael Oren is Israel’s ambassador to the United States.