Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Evaluating President Obama's Israel visit

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Update from AIJAC

March 25, 2013
Number 03/13 #05

US President Obama ended his visit to Israel and the Palestinian terrorities on Friday, going on to Jordan and then returning home.

His major statements in Israel were his speech on arrival, his media conference with Israeli PM Netanyahu, his media conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and his major speech to Israeli students in Jerusalem Thursday night (video is available here). All are worth reading in their entirety, if you have the time. For those who don't, AIJAC analyst Sharyn Mittelman offered a preliminary evaluation on Friday, while this Update is devoted to further evaluations of their cumulative effect, along with President Obama's other major stops in Israel and the West Bank.

We lead with veteran Australian Jewish leader Isi Leibler offering his overall evaluation of the trip. Leibler emphasises that Obama achieved a great deal - even a "sea change"  - in terms of passionately backing the Zionist understanding of the basis for Israel's right to exist - and repudiated an implication in his 2009 Cairo speech that the Holocaust is Israel's main justification for existing. However, Leibler points out that deeds remains more important than words, and argues that a two-state peace as urged by Obama remains a mirage in the short run while expressing hope that the US may still pursue more achievable interim agreements. For his full take, CLICK HERE. More general comment of the visit - include the first polling on the effects of Israeli opinion - come from journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner.

Next up, Washington Institute head Robert Satloff takes a sober look behind the rhetoric and examines the actual policy takeaway of the speeches and meetings in Israel. He notes a number of concrete developments, including a definite shift toward the Israeli position on resuming negotiations without preconditions, a mutual blurring of the past differences on dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, a continued disquiet with any US military commitment in Syria, and the easing of Israeli-Turkish tensions after Netanyahu, at Obama's urging, offered an apology to the Turkish government over the nine Turks killed in the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. For this authoritative look at all the concrete issues raised by the visit, CLICK HERE.

Finally, noted Israeli author and commentator Yossi Klein Halevi gives his take on Obama's big speech to students - and by extension to all Israelis -  in Jerusalem. He says before the speech it was easy to be cynical about President Obama's positive rhetoric, but the speech went beyond sound bites into a " sustained argument for Israel—its legitimacy, its faith, its fears." For all of Klein Halevi's insights into Obama's words, as well as the Israeli and regional context, CLICK HERE. Other important analyses of the Jerusalem speech and its implications come from former senior US official Elliot Abrams, American blogger Jonathan Tobin,  journalist Herb Keinon (who asks how such a speech would have gone down in the Palestinian areas), and David Horowitz of the Times of Israel (who called it a "left-wing Zionist" speech)

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Obama’s Visit to Israel: A Turning Point?

Isi Leibler

Jerusalem Post, 24 March 2013


Both American and Israeli leaders must have heaved sighs of relief as Air Force One departed from Ben-Gurion Airport with President Obama’s visit culminating on a high note for both parties.

Obama engaged in an unprecedented charm offensive in order to overcome the intense Israeli distrust towards him stemming from his initial efforts to appease the Arabs by “providing daylight” between the US and Israel. To that end, four years ago in Cairo, he groveled to the Moslem world and basically endorsed the Palestinian narrative. Subsequently he demanded a unilateral settlement freeze including the Jewish suburbs of East Jerusalem, issued one-sided condemnations of Israel and repeatedly snubbed Prime Minister Netanyahu.

What particularly rankled Israelis in his Cairo speech was his attribution of the creation of Israel to the Holocaust, effectively ignoring the Jewish links with Eretz Israel for 3000 years.

His first speech on arrival at the airport totally repudiated this. He related movingly “to the Jewish homeland” in which Jews prayed and tended the land for 3000 years, describing the rebirth of the Jewish state as an unparalleled historic act of redemption. He 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 subsequently 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 graves of Zionism’s patriarch, Theodor Herzl directly repudiating Erdogan’s outrageous remarks against Zionism in order to facilitate Netanyahu’s unsavory back down to Turkey which realpolitik demanded for tangible strategic reasons.

Obama repeated his mantra opposing settlement expansion and calling 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 praising the PA as a genuine peace partner. But for the first time he explicitly urged the Palestinians to accept Israel’s offer of negotiating without preconditions. 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. Of course, that may be resurrected at a future date.

Israelis remain somewhat queasy as to Obama’s ultimate intentions regarding Iran. Whilst 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 that the US may agree to a partial deal in which the Iranians would be permitted to develop medium enriched uranium enabling them subsequently 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 maintained 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 would lose enormous global credibility amongst friends and foes alike and irretrievably tarnish his legacy.

It would however be premature for Israelis to conclude that Obama’s intensively friendly statements and hugs signify a reversal of his political approach.

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.

American Jewish journalist, Jeffery Goldberg, who is close to Obama, described his views on Israel as being more akin to Israel’s far left newspaper, Ha’aretz, than the political mainstream. His administration is thus likely to remain isolationist and continue to appease rather than confront Islamist regimes.

Some suggest that he seeks popular support in order to renew pressure on Israel to make further unilateral concessions and accept his formula based on the indefensible pre-1967 borders. 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.

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 pressurizing of Israel has been counterproductive.

Some Israelis will dismiss his utterances as mere platitudes and warn against becoming bedazzled by a false dawn. But the political gravitas of such 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.

He also repudiated calls from the far left, including Israeli so called “peaceniks” and Jews like J Street, urging him to employ “tough love” and pressurize Israel. More importantly he conveyed a powerful message to the Islamists.

Indeed, without 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 will historically be recorded as the highlight of his visit.

Politicians must be judged by their actions. Whilst the selection of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, uncertainty over timing in relation to Iran, the Administration’s infatuation with Abbas and the ongoing US “engagement” with undemocratic Islamist regimes remain grounds for concern, the powerful messages of friendship and support directed towards us by an American President are of enormous significance.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, who only days earlier succeeded in cobbling together a government, must be immensely satisfied with Obama’s extraordinary 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.

However, most Israelis appreciate that we cannot subcontract our security to any third party – not even the United States – and must rely on our own defensive capabilities.

In the short term, achieving 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. If instead 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.

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Policy Takeaways from Obama's Visit to Israel and the West Bank

Robert Satloff

Washington Institute Policy Alert, March 22, 2013

The president tilted U.S. policy toward Israel in substantive ways, especially with regard to resuming peace talks with the Palestinians and repairing Israel-Turkish ties.

The main news story of President Obama's Middle East trip was his intensive focus on engineering an emotional reset with both the leadership and people of Israel. His two prepared texts (the speech to Israeli youths at the Jerusalem Convention Center and his toast to President Shimon Peres upon receiving Israel's Medal of Distinction) stand alongside his 2011 UN General Assembly speech as the most powerful endorsements of Zionism ever delivered by an incumbent president -- not just a defense of Israel, but an embrace of its founding ideology.

But the visit was not limited to emotion and outreach -- it also provided a series of important policy takeaways:

  • A shift in U.S. policy on the requirements for resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. While Washington has been largely silent on this issue since talks last collapsed in 2010, the president firmly aligned himself with Israel's position that they should now proceed, immediately and without precondition. The fact that he aired this view standing next to Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas was especially significant.
  • No change on pursuit of a "borders and security first" agreement. While he chose not to dwell on the details of his preferred approach to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, the president did reiterate his belief that the most effective way to proceed remains a negotiation over the delineation of borders, which he said would resolve the thorny settlements issue. This harkens back to his May 2011 speech outlining principles for a "borders and security first" approach. By implication, this approach is now likely to dominate U.S. diplomatic efforts, as opposed to focusing on interim arrangements or incremental changes to the current disposition of Israeli and Palestinian control over various West Bank zones.
  • Mutual blurring of U.S.-Israeli disagreement over the timetable of Iran's nuclear progress. Prior to his trip, the president stated that Iran would need at least a year to develop a nuclear bomb, an outcome that he has vowed to prevent. This appeared to suggest that diplomacy had much more time than the redline laid down last fall by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who warned at the time that Iran would cross an unacceptable threshold by spring or summer 2013. When asked about the issue this week, Netanyahu chose to play the warm and polite host, endorsing the president's statement. In reality, they were talking about two totally different issues -- Netanyahu was focusing on the speed of Iran's production of medium-enriched uranium, while Obama was focusing on the speed of Iran's development of a fully operational nuclear weapon. While the details of the private Obama-Netanyahu talks on Iran have not been leaked, U.S.-Israeli disagreement on the appropriate moment for the expiration of diplomacy apparently lives on.
  • Agreement to open talks on an extension of U.S. military aid to Israel. It is not surprising that the United States will continue to provide Israel with substantial military support. Yet the fact that the administration could announce the opening of talks about long-term provision of U.S. aid at a time of deep budgetary disputes in Washington underscores the depth of bipartisan commitment to Israeli security.
  • Recognition of the contribution Israel makes to U.S. interests. Amid all the fanfare about the depth of U.S. commitment to Israel's security, it should be noted that President Obama added an entirely new dimension to his recent rhetoric in support of the bilateral relationship when he stated that "innovation" was as important a part of the partnership as "security cooperation." This comes very close to the idea -- so controversial in circles infected with the Walt-Mearsheimer school of thought -- that Israel is actually an asset to, not a ward of, the United States.
  • Projecting continued unease and reluctance about U.S. military involvement in the Syria conflict. The president's most unsure moment during the visit was his press conference response to a question charging him with inactivity in the face of slaughter in Syria. After explaining the significant financial support the United States has given Syrian refugees and the recognition Washington has extended to the opposition, he fell back on the idea that preventing the massacres is a "world" responsibility, not an American one -- a concept seemingly at odds with the thrust of his comments two days later at Yad Vashem.
  • Contributing to an important thaw in Israeli-Turkish relations. It is no coincidence that Netanyahu spoke by phone with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan just as President Obama was departing Israel for Jordan, opening the door to a mutual return of ambassadors. Mending ties between the two leaders has long been a U.S. objective. The fact that Obama delivered a highly symbolic (if indirect) rebuke to Erdogan by visiting the tomb of Theodor Herzl -- implicitly endorsing the ideology that the Turkish leader recently called a "crime against humanity" -- almost certainly gave cover for Netanyahu to reach out to Ankara.


AN EARLY ASSESSMENT

On key issues, then, the president tilted U.S. policy toward Israel in substantive ways, especially with regard to resuming peace talks with the Palestinians and taking steps that facilitated an improvement in Israel-Turkish ties. Whether the shift on how peace talks should begin translates into a shift on how those talks should then proceed remains unclear. The president endorsed the importance of direct negotiations, long an Israeli desideratum, but also urged the people of Israel to pressure their leaders for progress, implying that his host was not sufficiently committed to the objective of peace with the Palestinians. (In this regard, Obama's rhetorical flourish about politicians never taking risks unless prodded by their publics earned applause, but it also turned peace process history on its head. Neither Menachem Begin nor Yitzhak Rabin, for example, faced public pressure to reach agreements with Egypt and the Palestine Liberation Organization, respectively; rather, each took a major risk and sought to build popular support for his initiative.)

On Iran, the president affirmed his position on prevention with powerful rhetoric but injected no additional measures to strengthen the credible threat of military force that, as Netanyahu said in their press conference, is a key component of a successful policy.

Beyond these individual issues, the most important takeaway from the president's trip is this: if the basic idea behind visiting Israel was to open the administration's second term on surer footing in terms of U.S.-Israeli relations than what characterized the opening months of the president's first term, he appears to have succeeded.

Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute.

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Obama's Big Israel Breakthrough

Thursday's speech may have singlehandedly repaired a rocky relationship

The New Republic, March 21

Barack Obama came to Jerusalem to win over the Israeli people, and with a single speech he did. It happened when he addressed an audience of several thousand young people in Jerusalem and delivered what may have been the most passionate Zionist speech ever given by an American president.

Of course, his embrace had an explicit message for Israelis: Don't give up on the dream of peace and don't forget that the Palestinians deserve a state just as you do. But as the repeated ovations from the politically and culturally diverse audience revealed, these are messages that Israelis can hear when couched in affection and solidarity. After four years of missed signals, Obama finally realized that Israelis respond far more to love than to pressure.

Until that speech it was easy to be cynical about the visit. Everyone seemed to be trying too hard. "An Unbreakable Friendship," proclaimed the government posters on the streets, sounding more anxious than celebratory. And Obama's affirmation of Israel's three thousand year history, delivered moments after he stepped off the plane, was a transparent attempt to get it right.

By contrast, his speech to the students was no string of sound bites but a sustained argument for Israel—its legitimacy, its faith, its fears. Obama acknowledged—no, he deeply affirmed—the well-earned right of Israelis to be skeptical of appeals to peace. You held out your hand in friendship and made a credible offer for peace and that was rejected, he told us. You withdrew from Gaza and got missiles in return. And when you look around the region, you see instability and wonder how peace can possibly come.  

One could sense the gratitude—the relief—in the audience: Finally, an acknowledgment of the Israeli narrative for the absence of peace.  

And when Obama urged us to nevertheless not despair of peace, he was appropriately cautious. No, there were no guarantees that peace will happen even if we resume negotiations, but we need to keep trying.  

Yes we can—maybe.

Obama's goal in coming to Israel was to establish a relationship of trust with the Israeli people—to enlist our support for a renewed peace process with the Palestinians. But for Israelis, the least credible part of his talk was when he tried to convince us that Mahmoud Abbas is ready to make peace—or that the Arab Spring has created an opening for reconciliation with the Middle East. That's hardly the reality we see emerging around us. There was something deeply unsettling, almost cruel, in trying to reawaken our suppressed hopes for normalcy—for a new Middle East, in the language of the Oslo peace process.  

In one sense Obama did succeed. Next time the Israeli government announces a settlement expansion, there will likely be widespread opposition, rather than indifference, among the public. Obama has reminded us that, even in the absence of peace, we have a responsibility not to take steps that will make an eventual peace all the more difficult.

Obama's biggest misstep in the speech was urging Israelis to pressure their government. That was an ungracious and inappropriate moment. Worse, it was unncessary. Many Israelis already got the point: When the President of the United States come here to demonstrate his friendship, we shouldn't respond by expanding settlements.

Obama's more subtle goal in trying to connect with the Israeli public was to convince us to trust him on Iran—to give up the option of a unilateral Israeli strike. But it's doubtful whether Israelis will trust anyone with their security on an existential threat. When Obama said that he has our back on Iran, Netanyahu's pointed response was that Israel can defend itself. That’s exactly what many of us want to hear from our prime minister.

Obama's achievement is to have ended the debate here about whether or not he is a friend of Israel. But that was always the wrong question. The real question is whether Obama's policies—on Iran, on Syria, on Egypt—are helping create a safer or more dangerous region. When the impact of Obama's embrace inevitably fades, we will be left with the fear that, for all his affection for us, this President still doesn't understand how to deal with the Middle East.  

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor of TNR and a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His forthcoming book is Like Dreamers: The Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem in the Six-Day War and the Divided Israel They Created.

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