Searching the speeches for an Obama doctrine

Though Obama did not lay down a plan, his words give a good look at his current direction.

US President Barack Obama (photo credit:  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
US President Barack Obama
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
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 Binyamin Netanyahu.
Goldberg quoted Obama as saying privately and repeatedly that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.”
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 election.
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 game.
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 other.
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 corrective.
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 him.
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 visit.
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 suffering.
“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 movement.
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 Abdullah.
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.
He 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 compromises.”
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.
“As a 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 length.
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 week.
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 talks.
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.