President Obama’s whole visit to Israel can be summed up in one Hebrew phrase he uttered to a packed auditorium of Israeli students this afternoon: You are not alone.
Acknowledging the deep insecurity of a people that has experienced millenniums of persecution, not least of all the Holocaust, Obama reassured them of America’s unwavering support as they grapple with a host of regional challenges, including Iranian nuclear development, civil war in Syria, the rise of Islamist powers, and ongoing tensions with their Palestinian neighbors.
“Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere,” he said, speaking to a select group in Jerusalem’s convention center. “Today, I want to tell you – particularly the young people – that so long as there is a United States of America, atem lo lavad.”
Obama’s demeanor, words, and gestures on his first trip to Israel as president mark a decided departure from his 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, in which he sought to show that the US took interest in regional affairs beyond their impact on Israel and thus rebuild credibility in a region roiled by the Iraq war and the larger war on terror.
While not all Israelis have been impressed by the opening scene of Obama’s Act II in the Middle East, many are grateful for his unequivocal expression of support for Israel. Some suggest it reflects a maturing in his views, shaped in part by the turmoil of the Arab revolts of the past two years – although others see it as a preemptive charm offensive before asking the Israelis to make some tough compromises on Iran and the Palestinian issue.
“In Cairo, he came to talk about peace, democracy, rights, new rules. And in a few days history changed in a scary way there. I think he understands things are different than what he thought,” says Tamar Asraf, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Eli. “And he’s coming not as the messiah, not as the sheriff; he’s coming as the president of the US, the best friend of Israel. I feel like he’s coming to support us, to help us.”
Cementing the friendship
Indeed, from the moment Obama stepped off Air Force One yesterday, he exuded a spirit of friendship that carried with it both deep commitment and informal ease, shedding his suit coat barely half an hour into the visit. From an Israeli point of view, he has said all the right things and is visiting all the right places, acknowledging not only the modern state of Israel but also the Jewish people’s ancient claims to the land.
But all he really had to do was land in the country for his first visit as president, a strong message of support no matter what he said or did. As Israel Hayom English editor Amir Mizroch put it, “Stop it, stop it. You had me at Shalom,” referring to Jerry McGuire winning his wife back with a simple “hello.”
Obama, however, had much more to say than shalom. “My main goal on this trip has been to have an opportunity to speak directly to the Israeli people at a time when obviously what was already a pretty tough neighborhood has gotten tougher and let them know that they’ve got a friend in the US, that we have your back, that we consider Israel’s security of extraordinary importance to us,” he said last night at a press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Not just because of the bonds between our peoples, but also because of our own national security interests.”
Such assurances may give Obama political capital that he can cash in later, perhaps to rein in Israeli impulses to attack Iran or Syria, or to push them to make hard compromises on the Palestinian issue.
After barely mentioning the Palestinians yesterday and spending only a few hours of his 48-hour visit in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas today, Obama reaffirmed America’s commitment to a two-state solution in his Jerusalem speech. And the young Israelis in attendance were receptive, cheering loudly when he said “the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized.”
Among them was Rona Keha, an undergraduate studying political science at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva. Now, she says, “He needs to put some pressure on the Israeli government. He needs to start conversations and negotiate between Israel and the Palestinians. He needs to press on our government in order to start doing so,” says Ms. Keha, who spent three hours in line waiting to get into the speech. “I think this visit is one way to do it. And I hope that this visit will bring us some change.”
Boosting peace, or booting it down the line?
Nadav Tamir, a policy advisor in Peres’s office who confessed to being emotional after Obama’s “amazing” speech, says Obama’s reassurances to the Israeli public would enable them to move forward more confidently toward peace.
“I think it was the balance between showing very strong and deep care for Israel, for the history, for the future, for Zionism, but on the other hand, you know, that he told us you Israelis should feel safe enough to be proactive in terms of the peace process,” says Mr. Tamir. “When the Israeli public feel that they can trust [our] most important ally and the strongest superpower, I think it will help leaders to move the peace process forward…. When President Obama is telling you, ‘I have your back,’ it’s very helpful.”
But there is also a fair amount of skepticism that Obama will be able to follow up his eloquent words with concrete progress.
"Israeli media talks about the fact that conflict in Middle East has become a kind of hobby for world leaders, and I tend to believe it is also true in the case of Obama,” says Hila Volpo, a graduate student studying political communication from Jerusalem. “I don’t think Obama believes within himself that it’s something he’s capable of doing."
Many American presidents have tried to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but even someone as engaged as former President Bill Clinton, who personally engaged in furious shuttle diplomacy, was unable to secure a deal. Obama, by contrast, got Israel to agree to a one-time settlement freeze but when talks stalled in September 2010, he was either unwilling or unable to pressure Israelis and Palestinians to resume talks.
Obama also made clear in the Ramallah press conference today that he’s done an about-face on Israeli settlements, saying that a fresh freeze on Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank – a key Palestinian precondition for returning to the peace table – would just delay substantive peacemaking.
That was deeply disappointing to Palestinians, but to Israelis it was a welcome change.
“I heard he understood that it’s not the way [to press on settler issue], that he does not achieve anything. I think freezing or not freezing is not the question, the question is how does he see the future here and does he understand that he has to let Israel lead the process,” says Ms. Asraf of Eli. “I feel that he came with a lot of love, and a lot of respect, and it doesn’t seem like here is a sheriff to make everything peaceful back again … it seems like he comes as a friend.”