On January 15, a week before Israel went to the polls, US columnist Jeffrey
Goldberg wrote a column reporting that President Barack Obama told several
people he had become inured to the self-defeating policies of Prime Minister
Goldberg quoted Obama as saying privately and
repeatedly that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests
The column featured prominently the next day in Israeli media, with
front page headlines talking about “Obama’s revenge,” claiming that this was a
peeved US president’s way of paying Netanyahu back for his perceived backing of
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the US
Goldberg’s column was widely viewed – whether justifiably or
not – as presidential tit for tat.
That column, as well as what Goldberg
described as the “dysfunctional relationship” between Netanyahu and Obama,
seemed light-years away last week as the two leaders, wearing matching blue ties
and white shirts, walked – all smiles, coats slung over their shoulders – on the
tarmac at Ben- Gurion Airport.
The famously tense and rocky
Obama-Netanyahu relationship seemed as if it had never been, as they exchanged
banter at the start of their press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office
later that day.
“I did inform the prime minister that they [Netanyahu’s
two sons] are very good-looking young men who clearly got their looks from their
mother,” Obama joked at the outset of the press conference. To which Netanyahu
replied, “Well, I can say the same of your daughters.”
Huh? Banter? These
two? One of the most startling features about the nine previous meetings between
the two leaders was that when they met the press either before or after those
talks, there was no banter, no idle chitchat.
In May 2009, August 2010,
May 2011 and March 2012, the press was shuffled into the Oval Office, where the
two men were seated and, no sooner had the last reporter scrambled for a vantage
point, would Obama begin by welcoming Netanyahu and setting immediately into
business. There was no joking about the kids or the wives or the golf
This time there was.
One does not knows what went on behind
the nearly 10 hours of closed-door meetings the two held over the president’s
50-hour stay here last week, but at least on the outside they succeeded in
putting to rest the widely held perception that they simply did not like each
And perceptions are important. The public perception of the nature
of the relationship impacts how other leaders – both in the region and in Europe
– see the US-Israeli relationship, and whether they believe they will have a
sympathetic ear with the president when they might want to badmouth Netanyahu
and/or his policies.
But all is not just perception. Obama spoke at
length and often during his visit here – five times in Israel (upon arrival; at
the joint press conference with Netanyahu; to students at Jerusalem’s
International Convention Center; at the state dinner in his honor at the
President's Residence; and at Yad Vashem). He also held a joint press conference
in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and one in Amman
with Jordanian King Abdullah II.
Although he did not lay out a coherent
Obama Mideast doctrine – indeed, far from it – the thousands of words Obama
spoke provide a pretty good indication of his current thinking on our issues.
His words of embrace toward Israel, his vision of two states and his talk of a
need to think creatively give insight into how he hopes to tackle the problem
during his second term.
The embrace It is obvious to anyone who watched
Obama’s visit or listened to his speeches that he has fundamentally changed his
tactic toward the Israeli public. If in the beginning of his presidency he felt
that he could better promote stability by putting a little daylight between him
and Israel, this visit – this “charm offensive” – was a giant
Time after time, both through the places Obama selected to
visit and by what he said, the US president made up for comments he has made in
the past – particularly in the Cairo speech in 2009 – that were jarring to many
an Israeli ear and led to the negative impression many Israelis held of
The first corrective was changing the perception that he did not
acknowledge the Jewish people’s historic connection to the land. “I know that in
stepping foot on this land, I walk with you on the historic homeland of the
Jewish people,” he said immediately after his arrival, setting the tone for the
The second major corrective was changing the perception left from
his Cairo speech that he believed that Israel existed because of the Holocaust,
unwittingly playing into the Palestinian/Arab narrative that the Palestinians
were paying the price for the sins of the Europeans and that if there had been
no Holocaust, there would have been no Israel and no Palestinian
“Here, on your ancient land, let it be said for all the world
to hear,” Obama said at Yad Vashem. “The State of Israel does not exist because
of the Holocaust. But with the survival of a strong Jewish State of Israel, such
a Holocaust will never happen again.”
Another element he corrected from
his Cairo speech was a hint of comparison between the Palestinian cause and the
US civil rights struggle. A number of times during his visit he mentioned Martin
Luther King and the civil rights struggle, this time acknowledging the Jewish
contribution to that struggle.
Referring to the Passover story, Obama –
speaking at the state dinner hosted by Peres – said that the story was one that
has inspired the world, including African Americans, “who have so often had to
deal with their own challenges, but with whom you [the Jewish community] have
stood shoulder to shoulder.”
Obama, in a statement likely more
significant to American than Israeli Jews, noted that African Americans and
American Jews marched together at Selma and Montgomery, saying “they bled
together, they gave their lives together – Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman
and Michael Schwerner alongside African American, James Chaney.” He also
acknowledged Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joachim Prinz, prominent American rabbis
who were strong supporters of Israel and the civil rights
Policy Obama and his advisers were deadly earnest when they
said before the trip that he was not coming to break any new ground on the
Israeli-Palestinian track or place any program on the table. But he did outline
where he wanted to go.
First of all, he reiterated with crystal clarity
for all to hear – including Israelis and Palestinians flirting with other ideas
– that his goal remained a two state solution.
“The United States remains
committed to realizing the vision of two states, which is in the interests of
the Palestinian people and also in the national security interest of Israel, the
United States, and the world,” he said during his press conference with Abbas.
“We seek an independent, a viable and contiguous Palestinian state as the
homeland of the Palestinian people, alongside the Jewish State of Israel – two
nations enjoying selfdetermination, security and peace.”
Obama made clear
that the way to get to that goal was through negotiations and that the US would
not support any efforts – such as bids at the UN or elsewhere – to shortcut that
process. “As I have said many times, the only way to achieve that goal is
through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians themselves. There
is no shortcut to a sustainable solution.”
He also made clear that his
near-term goal was to set up new machinery to re-start the talks and that new
ideas to move forward were needed. “So my hope and expectation is that, as a
consequence of us doing our homework, we can explore with the parties a
mechanism for them to sit back down, to get rid of some of the old assumptions,
to think in new ways and to get this done,” he said in Jordan along side
The road to negotiations will have to be paved by not only
Israeli gestures, but Palestinian ones as well. “We will continue to look for
steps that both Israelis and Palestinians can take to build the trust and the
confidence upon which lasting peace will depend,” he said in Ramallah.
also reiterated there that everyone – the Israelis, the Palestinians and the
Americans – “are going to have to think anew” and look for new formulas and ways
to move forward.
“We’re going to have to be willing to break out of the
old habits, the old arguments, to reach for that new place, that new world,” he
said in Ramallah.
“I think it’s difficult, frankly, because sometimes,
even though we know what compromises have to be made in order to achieve peace,
it’s hard to admit that those compromises need to be made because people want to
cling on to their old positions and want to have 100 percent of what they want,
or 95 percent of what they want, instead of making the necessary
One new formula that he winked at, though he clearly did
not embrace it, was the idea of interim arrangements. Though he said that he was
opposed to “incremental steps that serve to delay and put off some more
fundamental issues,” he did not rule out “incremental steps that help to shape
what a final settlement might look like.” Incremental steps in pursuit of a
broader vision – rather then the idea that has animated the peace process up
until now, that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed – is an idea Obama
notably did not rule out.
During that press conference in Ramallah he
also seemed to partially ditch an assumption that characterized much of his
first year in office – that while Abbas had the will to make peace but not the
power, Netanyahu had the political power but not the will.
politician, I can say it’s hard for political leaders to get too far ahead of
your constituencies,” he said in Ramallah. “And that’s true for Prime Minister
Netanyahu; I’m sure it’s true for President Abbas as well.” He returned to this
theme during the press conference when he was asked about the settlements: “I
will say, with respect to Israel, that the politics there are complex and I
recognize that that’s not an issue that’s going to be solved immediately. It’s
not going to be solved overnight.”
This assumption – that Netanyahu had
the political power but not the will – was, however only partially abandoned. By
calling on the public, as he did in his centerpiece speech in Jerusalem to 1,000
students, to push their leaders to peace, he was implying that Netanyahu could
move if he just had the will to do so – and that it was up to the public to give
him that will.
Omissions Almost as important as what Obama said during
his visit was what he did not say, or did not speak about at any
Foremost in this category were the settlements. Obama, who placed
the settlement issue front and center during the first year of his first term,
saying settlement activity was not legitimate and should be stopped, said the
word “settlement” maybe half a dozen times during his speeches last
The US president spoke Hebrew more on this trip – nine times, to be
exact – than he made reference to the settlements. And when he did mention them,
he used words such as “counterproductive” and “not appropriate,” rather than
“illegitimate” or illegal.”
He also refrained from demanding any
settlement freeze or showing any support for Abbas’s precondition of a
settlement moratorium before entering talks, saying in Ramallah that “if the
expectation is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is
settled ahead of time, then there’s no point for negotiations.” He pointedly
said that just as Palestinians have concerns about settlements, Israelis have
concerns about rockets and that neither should be a barrier to entering
Obama also made no reference to the 1967 lines as a baseline for
talks, something he did during a May 2011 speech on the Middle East – a speech
that angered Netanyahu and led to his “lecturing” Obama in the Oval Office on
the indefensible nature of those lines.
And, finally, Obama did not
mention Jonathan Pollard once in public.
The US president discussed
Pollard in a pre-visit interview with Channel 2, articulating sympathy for his
plight but asking Israelis to understand that there are scores of people in US
jails who want their sentences commuted and that the US president must ensure
that justice is meted out fairly.
While some held out some slight hope
that Obama would announce the release of Pollard as a way to win over the
Israeli public, in the end – according to surveys that showed the Israeli
public’s view of Obama improved significantly with the visit – he seemed to be
able to win over the public even without freeing Pollard.
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