WASHINGTON -- Whenever the three words "Obama in Israel" have been mentioned together over the last four-plus years, the responses on both sides of the conversation have been the voices of negativity. It has been widely noted that Israel takes the United States too much for granted in simply assuming it can get any of the newest weaponry from Washington; and more and more Americans wonder just exactly what it is that they are getting from our "strategic friendship" with Israel.
Despite the supposed special relationship between the world's biggest industrial power and its smallest one, in between trips back and forth by the two nations' leaders, each side is known to gripe and complain, to suggest that not all is well. But then the leaders of both sides go on television to assure the world (particularly the Arab world) that relations between the two are just hunky-dory. Once the meetings start in Washington or Gettysburg, in Jerusalem or the Sinai, differences are forgotten, frozen, forgiven.
It's a difficult relationship, that's for sure, as Israel persists in the belief that the two countries, despite their mismatched size, have exactly the same strategic interests, and thus will never be called to honesty about their natural disparities. What that really means is that the U.S. must always be ready to supply Israel, whatever the threat and whatever its needs.
Many Americans have not been pleased with this imbalance between the two powers, and over the years these critics have tried to create an American/Israeli relationship that is more reasonable, that does not use Jewish campaign contributions to the party in power to ensure Israel's every wish, and that would build a relationship that is fairer to both parties. But each time, these efforts have been derailed.
Yet this time around, as President Barack Obama makes his first visit to Israel, there does actually seem to be a new, more desirable discussion between the two long-troubled interlocutors, despite past experience. Consider these possibilities that could point us to a more honest relationship in the future:
On previous trips to Israel, the Americans were pushed to deliver whatever the Israelis wanted, sometimes after substantial discussion. The Israelis used the old "birth-of-Israel" story of 1948 to inspire the visitors. But this trip -- in actions that certainly looked as though they had Obama's hands all over them -- the president argued on many levels to give importance to the long-term strength of the country.
For instance, virtually all former high-level American visitors would never dream of not visiting the Knesset, Israel's parliament, any more than they would not praise the beauty of Jerusalem and the country's coastal cities. The president's traditional speech to the Knesset was a highly regarded part of the visit. But this time, Obama did not go to the Knesset for his major speech. Instead, he spoke to thousands of young Israelis at Jerusalem's convention center.
Formerly, visiting presidents would lay a wreath at Yad Vashem, the touching memorial to the Holocaust victims, or perhaps at the grave of Golda Meir or one of the founders of the state; but this time, President Obama had his own ideas. Instead, he planned to lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism whose inspiration for the historic state of Israel goes back to the 1890s.
The president will also view the Dead Sea Scrolls, thus tacitly acknowledging the ancient Jewish links to the Israeli homeland, and will as well inspect an Iron Dome battery, a missile-defense system that Israel set up with U.S. help.
All of these visits may not seem as important in other countries, but this is a country that has suffered as each new statue and monument has been laid or observed. And the wild enthusiasm of the Israeli young people as they greeted Obama confirmed that he had certainly gotten a lot of things right on this visit.
Not for Obama to drop the famous "two-state" solution for Israel and the Palestinians! Not for him to just say, "Well, I don't think it can be done, so let's just throw it in the Dead Sea and think up something else."
No, his speech could not be clearer on these points. He believes Israel has a "peace partner in the present PLO chief, Mahmoud Abbas." He believes "peace is possible." He believes that "negotiations must be pursued, but there is no secret what must come -- two states and two peoples."
Someone will closely analyze that speech and see how Obama used phrases and ideas from Jewish history. If that is not the right way to win over people -- not by promising them more tanks, and not by lowering yourself, begging for their campaign contributions -- then I don't know what is.
I can see the beginnings of a new relationship between these two countries -- not political or economic, necessarily, but profoundly cultural.
And President Obama and his party could always look at Wednesday's edition of Israel's largest daily, Yedioth Ahranoth, whose headline on Page One read "Thanks," before detailing the $233 billion the U.S. has given Israel since its founding in 1948. It was a nice gesture, and a unusually grateful one.