Former President George W. Bush waited until his eighth year in office to touch down in Israel. His father, George H.W. Bush, didn’t go at all. Neither did Ronald Reagan.
But for President Barack Obama, the call of Israel has always been more urgent.
Jewish leaders have been pressing Obama since he took office to carve out time for Israel, arguing that a trip is needed to repair missteps in the relationship with the key U.S. ally. But the window — and the expectations — for a visit are quickly diminishing, leaving a potential missed opportunity for a president who has been dogged by questions about his commitment to Israel.
“It is an error,” said former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who made peace with Obama in September after being sharply critical of his record on Israel and agreed to support his reelection. “If he didn’t go this year and he didn’t go next year, it would result in an even greater reduction in Jewish support.”
Complaints about Obama stem from the perception that he has been too tough on Israel in his pursuit of Middle East peace — concerns that peaked last spring when the president gave a speech calling on Israel to embrace the country’s pre-1967 borders, with “land swaps” as a basis for peace talks. Although that approach was what American negotiators had contemplated for an eventual agreement, the stark language on borders at the outset of negotiations prompted Republicans to accuse Obama of abandoning Israel and drew criticism from some Democrats, as well.
The White House gave “serious consideration” to a summer trip to Israel, said former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), a lead liaison for the Obama campaign with the Jewish community.
But domestic distractions piled up, and there are no longer any plans in the works, at least at this point. Obama travels to France, about a five-hour flight from Israel, for the opening of a conference Thursday of the world’s largest economies. And next week, he leaves on a nine-day trip to Hawaii, Indonesia and Australia. The winter holiday season is typically off-limits for foreign travel.
If Obama doesn’t go next year, he would break with the precedent set by his two most recent Democratic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, both of whom made the trip during their first term.