Both American and Israeli leaders must have heaved sighs of relief when Air
Force One departed from Ben-Gurion Airport; President Barack Obama’s visit had
culminated on a high note for both countries.
Obama engaged in an
unprecedented charm offensive to overcome intense Israeli distrust toward him
stemming from his initial efforts to appease the Arabs by “putting daylight”
between the US and Israel. To that end, four years ago in Cairo, he groveled to
the Muslim world and basically endorsed the Palestinian narrative. Subsequently
he demanded a unilateral settlement freeze which included the Jewish suburbs of
east Jerusalem, issued one-sided condemnations of Israel and repeatedly snubbed
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
What particularly rankled Israelis in
his Cairo speech was his attribution of the creation of Israel to the Holocaust,
effectively ignoring 3,000 years of Jewish history.
His first speech on
arrival totally repudiated this. He related movingly “to the Jewish homeland” in
which Jews prayed and tended the land for 3,000 years, describing the rebirth of
the Jewish state as an unparalleled historic act of redemption.
subsequently said that Israel was the guarantor that a future Holocaust would
never recur. He reaffirmed that “the US is proud to stand with you as your
greatest ally and your greatest friend,” describing the “unbreakable” US-Israel
alliance as “eternal.”
He visited the Israel Museum where he viewed the
Dead Sea Scrolls – evidence of the historical linkage between Israel and the
Jewish people. He also visited the grave of Zionism’s patriarch, Theodor Herzl,
directly repudiating Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s outrageous
remarks against Zionism and facilitating Netanyahu’s unpleasant back-down to
Turkey, justified for tangible strategic reasons.
Obama repeated his
mantra opposing settlement expansion and called for implementing the two-state
solution. He irritated many Israelis by referring to Palestinian suffering
without relating it to terrorism and incitement, as well as by praising the PA
as a genuine peace partner.
But for the first time he explicitly urged
the Palestinians to accept Israel’s offer of negotiation without
He also made no demands on Israel for further unilateral
concessions and hinted – but avoided explicitly repeating his former demand –
that the indefensible 1949 armistice lines, with swaps, serve as a benchmark for
negotiations. But there is already talk of Secretary of State John Kerry
reintroducing the Arab League “peace initiative” based on 1967 borders and
repatriation to Israel of Arab refugees.
Israelis also remain somewhat
queasy with respect to Obama’s ultimate intentions regarding Iran. While
expressing hope that diplomacy could still succeed, he reiterated that he was
not bluffing when he vowed as a last resort to exercise all options to prevent
the Iranians from achieving nuclear status, but still declined to set deadlines.
There are also concerns the US may agree to a partial deal in which the Iranians
would be permitted to develop medium-enriched uranium, enabling them to create a
bomb within a very short time span.
Yet on the positive side, a nuclear
Iran is now recognized as a threat to the US and the West. And for the first
time, Obama stated explicitly that the US accepted and respected Israel’s right
to take whatever steps deemed necessary to defend itself – a clear message to
the Iranians that if they maintain their current course, the US would not block
an Israeli strike.
If after his repeated undertakings, Obama fails to
prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, he will lose enormous global
credibility among friends and foes alike and irretrievably tarnish his
It would however be premature for Israelis to conclude that
Obama’s intensively friendly statements and hugs signify a reversal of his
EVEN ON this visit, unlike presidents Clinton and
Bush he refused to address the Knesset – the embodiment of Israel’s democratic
ethos; declined to visit the Kotel and the Temple Mount, to avoid compromising
US policy which stipulates that these are disputed areas; and excluded Ariel
University students from his address to students.
journalist Jeffery Goldberg, who is close to Obama, described his views on
Israel as being more akin to Israel’s far-left newspaper Haaretz than the
His administration is thus likely to remain
isolationist, continue to appease rather than confront Islamist regimes and
still seek to promote a settlement based on the indefensible 1949 armistice
But Obama is a pragmatist and aware that opinion polls demonstrate
that Americans today are more supportive of Israel than ever before and that
ongoing confrontation with the Jewish state would create needless problems in
Congress, where he faces crucial challenges.
Indeed, on the eve of his
visit, over three quarters of the Congress petitioned him to stand by Israel. He
has probably also concluded that one-sided condemnations of Israel have been
He thus repudiated calls from the far left, including
Israeli so-called “peaceniks” and Jews like J Street, urging him to employ
“tough love” and pressure Israel. More importantly, he conveyed a powerful
message to the Islamists.
Some Israelis will dismiss his utterances as
mere platitudes and warn against becoming bedazzled by a false dawn. But the
political gravitas of his statements should not be underestimated. Never has an
American president spoken out with such commitment and passion about Israel and
effectively identified himself with the Zionist vision.
suggesting that Israelis were transformed overnight into fans, his
unprecedented, passionate Zionist speeches and extraordinary efforts to overcome
the personal animus with Netanyahu did more than merely ease acute concerns. At
least symbolically, they represented a sea change, and historically will
unquestionably be recorded as the highlight of his visit.
must be judged by their actions. While the selection of Chuck Hagel as secretary
of defense, uncertainty over timing in relation to Iran, the administration’s
infatuation with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the ongoing
US “engagement” with undemocratic Islamist regimes remain grounds for concern,
the powerful messages of friendship and support directed toward Israel by an
American president are of enormous significance.
Netanyahu, who only days
earlier succeeded in cobbling together a government, must be immensely satisfied
with Obama’s effusive public displays of friendship. Netanyahu spoke for the
entire nation when conveying gratitude for US military support which despite the
tensions, actually expanded under the Obama administration.
Israelis appreciate that we cannot subcontract our security to any third party –
not even the United States – and must rely on our own defensive
In the short term, a peace settlement remains a mirage.
However, transitory agreements can be implemented which would improve the
relationship between Palestinians and Israelis.
The new Israeli
government is in an ideal position to move in this direction.
of pressuring Israel to commit to final borders or make further unilateral
concessions, the Obama administration endorsed its efforts to create interim or
partial agreements providing the Palestinians with improved quality of life,
this would represent considerable progress. Over time, it may even encourage the
emergence of a moderate Palestinian leadership willing to negotiate towards a
comprehensive peace settlement.The writer’s website can be viewed at
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