There was only so much President Barack Obama could accomplish in a brief trip to Israel this past week, but he made the most of it.
Viewed with skepticism if not hostility by large numbers of Israelis during his first term, he improved his ratings by repeatedly emphasizing the unbreakable bonds between Israel and America, citing the historical connection between the Jewish people and the ancient land of Israel (which he did not do in his Cairo speech four years ago) and seeking to assure the tiny democracy in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood that the United States has Israel’s back.
Obama’s critics, here and in Israel, insist that his smooth tongue cannot make up for his lack of deep commitment to the Zionist cause. They note that he did not visit the Western Wall or address the Knesset, choosing instead to, in effect, go over the heads of the country’s politicians and make his case to college students and other young people in a speech at the Jerusalem convention center that praised Israel while calling for (yet) another push toward peace with the Palestinians.
It was a message that stayed on the surface level, not a policy talk that probed deeply. For example, though the president acknowledged that Israel has made proposals in the past that were rejected by the Palestinians, he seemed still to put the onus on Jerusalem. How should Israel “reverse an undertow of isolation” and satisfy a frustrated international community if the Palestinians won’t even come to the table? And what about the stream of anti-Semitic invective that comes from the Arab leadership and media so steadily that it tends to be ignored or dismissed by many in the West?
While Obama left many questions unanswered, he certainly bolstered confidence in his expressions of commitment to Israeli security, proclaiming: “I want to tell you — particularly the young people — that so long as there is a United States of America, ahtem lo lavad, you are not alone.”
It is difficult to know what went on behind closed doors between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but the impression, based on their public expressions and body language, was that their encounter lacked the tension and controlled anger of past meetings. What’s more, it seems that Netanyahu is now on the president’s timetable regarding when Iran could go nuclear — not this year but a year from now. And Obama was clear in saying that “time is not unlimited” and that the U.S. will “do what we must” to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon.
Finally, Obama showed his diplomatic muscle in easing the strain between two key U.S. allies, Turkey and Israel, convincing Netanyahu to apologize to Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for those killed in the 2010 Gaza flotilla episode. There appears to be a long way to go on the road to rapprochement, but the initial steps were taken.
The same could not be said yet on the Israeli-Palestinian front. It’s clear Washington would like to see progress, but not at all certain it is prepared to invest real political capital again after previous failures and with so many pressing other crises in the region, including Egypt, Syria and Iran.
For now the president can check off “Israel” on his foreign policy slate of countries requiring attention, but the real work still remains.