It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of President Obama’s official visit to Israel this week, both for the interests of the United States in the Middle East, and also, of course, for Israel.
Many American Jews wish, with good cause, that the President had visited Israel sooner, during his first term. The “trust deficit” that he has suffered from in Israel, reflected in a strikingly low percentage of Israelis who view him as a true friend (pre-visit), owes largely to that failure. When President Obama delivered his now famous address in Cairo, aimed at the Arab world, and neglected to visit Israel on that trip, Israelis noticed, and were not happy. Additionally, his reference to Israel’s creation as being a result of the Shoah, so sorely lacking in any appreciation of the thousands of years in which Jews have regarded the land of Israel as central to their religious and national identities, was profoundly disturbing.
The net result of President Obama’s trip to Cairo was that Israelis were almost completely incapable of hearing the more positive things that he had said. That he told the Arab world that Israel was here to stay, and that the American government, and people, would never abandon Israel, fell largely on deaf ears for large sectors of the Israeli population. And, of course, the President’s repeated calls for Israel to suspend the expansion of West Bank settlements, and completely stop the creation of new ones, only exacerbated the mistrust, and the perception that he was, at best, not a friend. Throw in more than a little irrational paranoia, couple it with what I’ve referred to in the past at the President’s sometimes striking inability to navigate Israeli sensitivities, and you’ve got the gist of the baggage that President Obama was carrying with him to Israel.
All of this, sadly and remarkably, came coupled with unprecedented amounts of American aid to Israel, along with unprecedented levels of cooperation on a whole host of security issues. And what a strange coupling it has been: more and better cooperation than ever before, together with often overt hostility.
Against this background, it is important to note that, while President Obama’s address to Israeli students in the Knesset did not really break any new ground, it did, once again, address the issues that are central to the Arab-Israeli dispute. It was not what I would call a “safe speech.”
The President did not shy away from expressing his sense that the West Bank settlements are an obstacle to peace, nor from urging Israelis to see Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad as legitimate and trustworthy negotiating partners. He urged Israelis to try – harder than they have been– to see the world through Palestinian eyes, understanding what it means to live under an occupation that he painted as making every day painful and difficult. And he urged them, once again, to come to terms with the fact that the future of Israel as a democracy, and a Jewish state, is imperiled by that occupation.
None of this is easy for Israelis of any age to swallow, and President Obama undoubtedly chose an audience of young Israelis in the hope that they might be a more receptive audience that older people, who are more set in their view of the world. The reception that he got appeared to be warm and genuine, but there is a world of difference between dreaming the dream of peace in the Middle East, and realizing it. The fact that five missiles were fired at Sderot during the President’s visit highlighted the very real security concerns that underlie Israel’s reluctance to take additional chances for peace.
But such that the President is capable of such a thing, both the speech itself in Binyanei Ha’Uma, as well as every opportunity he had to speak in public, was an Obama-esque charm offensive. Liberally sprinkling in Hebrew words and phrases at every opportunity (one has to believe that the lasting legacy of President Clinton’s “Shalom Haver” comment regarding the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin has finally dawned on him), the President did not miss an opportunity to reiterate, time and time again, the unbreakable bond between the governments of America and Israel, and the equally powerful connection between the two countries’ citizens. Atem lo l’vad, he said. You are not alone… Ad Me’ah V’Esrim (Until one hundred and twenty!) in a toast to President Shimon Peres… Lanetzah–forever– in describing the friendship between the two peoples. He certainly was trying hard, because those of us who have followed his presidency in this country know that being warm and fuzzy does not come naturally to this man.
Whether or not President Obama’s very conscious effort to warm up the relationship between America and Israel, and just as importantly, between himself and the Israeli people, is the piece of this trip’s story that is yet to be written. This much is for sure. If Israelis persist in not trusting him, all other political considerations aside, they will not take risks for him. They were willing to take risks for President Clinton because they were convinced that he was a friend. Unless and until they feel that way about President Obama, the terribly difficult and risky decisions that any version of peace will never be made, no matter how hard the President pushes.
President Obama tried hard on this trip. I just hope it wasn’t too little, too late.