In his visit to Israel, President Obama did not miss a beat. Having written before his trip about what he should try to accomplish, I conclude that the president did exactly what he had to do to the benefit of Israel and the United States.
Already, one hears interpretations of what the president said and did that try to paint things in a more negative light. The Jerusalem Post headline saw the president as making nice to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he was with him and trying to go around him in talking to the students. On CNN, Martin Indyk, a former Ambassador to Israel, tried to describe the speech by the president as raising expectations “sky high” about the need for Israelis and Palestinians to move forward on peace.
Both comments in my view, misread what the president said. There was nothing in his address that contradicted the policies of Netanyahu and his government.
President Obama called for a two-state solution as necessary for Israel to maintain a Jewish and democratic state. He acknowledged that Israel has made offers to the Palestinians in the past that could have moved things forward. He articulated the American opposition to settlements but, most critically, in Ramallah before the Palestinian representatives, he argued that the settlement issue, like others, must be resolved at the negotiating table.
This was in marked contrast to the most egregious Obama blunder early in his administration, in which he made the settlement issue a precondition for negotiations.
The president, in my view, was neither unduly raising expectations nor was he trying to undermine the Netanyahu government. What he was doing was appealing to the best instincts of the Israeli people, not to give up on peace, not to allow the very real negatives, particularly in the region, to block positive thinking about the possibility of peace.
In doing so, the president created the right balance between calling on both parties to take constructive steps for peace, while still recognizing the special role that Israel alone has taken to achieve peace. He sought to link the moral need for peace to Israel’s strategic interest as a Jewish and democratic state.
While doing all this, the president more than lived up to the hope that he would reassure the Israeli people that they have a friend in the White House and that they can count on the special U.S.-Israel relationship enduring under his leadership. His powerful words uttered in Hebrew, “You are not alone,” will continue to resonate long after the trip is a distant memory.
The president reassured Israelis by the tone of his remarks, as well as the substance. His informal and casual manner, as well as his oratory, could only leave a feeling of comfortableness that hardly existed before. He did that by the places he visited, including the grave of Theodor Herzl, the embodiment of the Zionist dream.
He did it by reiterating America’s determination to prevent Iran from getting a bomb. He did it by repeatedly referring to Israel as the Jewish state, including before the Palestinians themselves. And he did it, unlike his Cairo speech, by linking Israel’s presence to the thousands of years of connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.
Yes, there are a few things that might have been said a little differently. But they must be seen in the goal of the trip: convince the Israelis they have a friend without denigrating the Palestinians and their leader, Mahmoud Abbas.
So the president indicated that Israel has a partner for peace with Abbas. Many in Israel would question that, but considering Obama’s goal of strengthening Abbas vis-à-vis Hamas, he probably could not do otherwise.
And in describing the tragedy of the Palestinians while also articulating Israeli steps toward peace, some would have liked him to make clear that it was Palestinian rejection of these peace initiatives that is a major cause of their suffering. But again, this was left implicit because the president wanted to avoid undermining Abbas.
All in all, it could not have been better.
How it will all play out is to be determined. But for now, one can only applaud the president for reaffirming to the Israeli people in so many ways that the unique friendship between Israel and the United States remains as strong and as deep as ever.