In the early months of the Obama Administration, one poll showed that only 4% of Israelis had confidence the president was pro-Israel. His standing did not change much the first two years, but as his policy toward Israel shifted as reelection approached, Israelis began to feel less trepidation; still, just before he arrived in Tel Aviv, a poll showed that a majority of Israelis still did not trust him. The main purpose of his trip was to gain their confidence.
The president said and did just about everything possible to reassure Israel’s leaders and public that America supports them. His symbolic gestures were particularly important. By laying a wreath at Theodor Herzl’s tomb, Obama recognized Zionism and the Jewish people’s right to live in their homeland. At Yad Vashem, the president demonstrated an appreciation of the role of the Holocaust in the Jewish psyche and also corrected the misimpression he had created in his 2009 Cairo speech by saying that “Israel does not owe its existence to the Holocaust but its existence prevents another one from happening.” One symbolic photo op the President eschewed was a trip to the Western Wall or anywhere else in the Old City.
Obama’s words and deeds matter because Israel must take serious risks for peace. For example, Israelis worry that withdrawing from the West Bank could lead to the area becoming a terrorist base like Gaza; the difference being terrorist rockets in the West Bank can reach Ben-Gurion Airport, Jerusalem and all of Israel’s population centers. The only way Israelis will take such risks is if the Palestinians demonstrate they are prepared to end the conflict and coexist next to the Jewish state, and if Israelis believe America has their backs if peace fails.
The Palestinians continued to demonstrate a lack of interest in peace. The people remain divided between West Bankers and Gazans and Hamas sent its own message to Obama by firing rockets into Israel during his visit. The Palestinians are disappointed because they were convinced Obama was the president who would force Israel to capitulate to their demands. The first two years, he gave them some optimism, but it faded quickly when Obama couldn’t force Israel to freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem. As time went on, Obama’s image among Arabs eroded to the point where the president who set out to improve America’s standing in the Arab/Muslim world was less popular than George W. Bush.
Palestinians in the territories protested the visit and presented a vivid contrast to the heartfelt welcome Obama received from Israelis. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has become more irredentist over the years and reached the point where he openly defied Obama by, for example, seeking recognition for Palestine at the UN General Assembly. After meeting Obama, Abbas said, “Peace should not be made through violence, occupation, settlements, arrests, siege, and the denial of the rights of refugees.” He did not give any indication he was prepared to make any concessions for peace.
Obama’s response angered Palestinian officials by referring to Israel as the Jewish state, rejecting his demand for a settlement freeze and calling for negotiations without preconditions.
Behind the scenes, Abbas agreed to delay asking the International Criminal Court to declare Israeli settlements illegal. Despite their inflexibility on other issues, Obama agreed to release $500 million in U.S. aid to the PA to bolster its disintegrating economy and make up for the lack of Arab support for the Palestinians.
Substantively, on Israel’s top priority, Iran, Obama agreed with Prime Minister Netanyahu that each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to security. Netanyahu unexpectedly agreed with Obama that Iran was a year away from building a bomb, changing the timetable he gave earlier of this spring. Nevertheless, Netanyahu kept up his mantra that Iran must believe a military option is seriously contemplated while Obama repeated that all options are on the table and that he believed in giving negotiations a chance.
A second issue on Israel’s agenda was Syria. In his pubic comments Obama gave short shrift to the war and made no new commitments to intervene. This probably disappointed Netanyahu, given the possibility the war will spill over into Israel and a hostile new regime may emerge. Discussion of the Syrian conflict did have one positive outcome when Obama mediated a reconciliation between Israel and Turkey. Though it will take time, this is a crucial alliance for regional stability, opposing radicalism and containing Iran.
On the peace process. Netanyahu repeated his commitment to a two-state solution and willingness to negotiate. He was no doubt relieved that Obama agreed on starting talks without preconditions, removing the settlement freeze excuse Abbas has used to avoid negotiations for the last four years.
Publicly, Netanyahu and Obama were all smiles and appeared to get along. Improving their personal relationship will also be crucial for the future since policy disagreements remain.
Obama’s criticism of settlements was not surprising since the president has internalized the specious claim that they are an obstacle to peace. In his speech to Israeli students, Obama also did not stray from the Arabist formulation that Israel must make concessions for peace and, if it does so, his utopian vision will be fulfilled. As the editor of the Times of Israel observed, “This was the address of a passionate, pro-Israel advocate, a true friend, a Zionist. A left-wing Zionist, employing his charisma, his authority and his oratory to try to shift Israelis into his camp.” By speaking to students rather than members of Knesset, Obama appealed to the public over the heads of the government in hopes of gaining support for his vision.
The trip was an important step forward in the advancement of U.S.-Israel relations, but did it accomplish the president’s goal of winning Israelis’ confidence? Obama told the students, Atem lo Levad, you are not alone. The next series of polls will tell us whether Israelis were convinced.
Mitchell Bard is the author of The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East (HarperCollins) and Israel Matters (Behrman House).