Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Obama wins hearts and minds in Israel

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US President Barack Obama's trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories has been vitally important - and apparently highly successful. In only three short days Obama seems to have been able to address core issues that appeared to be straining the US-Israel relationship and press ‘reset'.

Firstly, there was the often rocky relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Recognising that both Obama and Netanyahu will have no choice but to work together over the next few years, from the moment Obama landed at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, he was on a charm offensive - as was Netanyahu. Netanyahu and Obama bantered as they walked along the tarmac, and throughout the day they both overflowed with complimentary and gracious words for each other.

On policy, Obama insisted in a joint press conference that "there is not a lot of light, a lot of daylight between our countries' assessments in terms of where Iran is right now", both agreeing that Iran must be prevented from gaining nuclear weapons, and that Israel as a sovereign nation has the right to defend itself. Obama said:

"... each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of military action, and Israel is differently situated than the United States. And I would not expect that the Prime Minister would make a decision about his country's security and defer that to any other country - any more than the United States would defer our decisions about what was important for our national security."

Secondly, Obama rectified a perceived problem with his 2009 Cairo speech, which was widely criticised in Israel for suggesting that Israel was established due to the Holocaust rather than because of the Jewish people's right to self-determination and long-standing connections to the land of Israel. Therefore, when Obama arrived in Israel he made his perspective clear:

"More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here... And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history."

In addition, Obama visited the Dead Sea Scrolls - symbolically slapping accusations of those who deny the Jewish people's indigenous connection to the land.

Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, Obama tried to move the peace process forward in a more realistic way than in his unsuccessful efforts early in his first term. In an inspiring speech to young Israeli university students in Jerusalem, he assured them of US support and asked them to believe in the prospect of peace:

"There will be many voices that say this change is not possible. But remember this: Israel is the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world. Israel has the wisdom to see the world as it is, but also the courage to see the world as it should be. Ben Gurion once said, ‘In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.' Sometimes, the greatest miracle is recognizing that the world can change. After all, that is a lesson that the world learned from the Jewish people."

Obama's speech also reinforced his commitment to "two states for two peoples", and the guts of the speech had firm words for Israel, the Arab states and the Palestinians:

"Negotiations will be necessary, but there is little secret about where they must lead - two states for two peoples. There will be differences about how to get there, and hard choices along the way. Arab States must adapt to a world that has changed. The days when they could condemn Israel to distract their people from a lack of opportunity are over. Now is the time for the Arab World to take steps toward normalized relations with Israel. Meanwhile, Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state, and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security. Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable- that real borders will have to be drawn. I've suggested principles on territory and security that I believe can be the basis for talks. But for the moment, put aside the plans and process. I ask you, instead, to think about what can be done to build trust between people."

While Obama referred to settlements as ‘counterproductive', he avoided past mistakes by not including a demand for a settlement freeze or discussing borders.  The Palestinian Authority (PA) has refused to negotiate with Israel without a settlement freeze, however, Israel agreed to a ten month settlement freeze in 2009 but that did not lead to progress, and there have been no substantive negotiations since. Furthermore, the PA subsequently added another precondition for talks - that Israel first promise to accept "the 1967 borders" as the basis for negotiations - after Obama suggested this in one of his speeches.

But prior to his speech in Jerusalem, Obama urged PA President Abbas to return to negotiations with Israel and give up on a settlement freeze as a precondition to negotiations. Obama said in a joint press conference with Abbas in Ramallah: "That's not to say settlements aren't important, that's to say if we resolve the (main) problems, then settlements will be resolved."

He went on to say, quite rightly, "If to begin the conversation we have to get everything right from the outset ... then we're never going to get to the broader issue, which is how do you structure a state of Palestine."

In response, Abbas was defiant that the Palestinian position on settlements had not changed. Abbas said:  "It isn't just our perception that settlements are illegal. It is a global perspective. Everybody views settlements not only as a hurdle, but more than a hurdle to a two-state solution."

During the press conference, Obama also condemned Hamas' refusal to renounce violence and the firing of rockets from Gaza that day, and said "some people" opposed an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal because "they benefit from the current conflict." Outside of the press conference there were anti-Obama demonstrations throughout the West Bank.

Obama's visit finishes later today, but so far, from Israel's perspective it appears to be a roaring success. Obama's warm and apparently heartfelt messages to Israelis seem to have won many over. From stating that the US-Israel alliance is "eternal, it is forever - lanetzah", to telling young Israelis in Hebrew "Atem lo levad [you are not alone]".

But it was a message not only intended for Israel but also for the world and especially the unstable region, where some may have questioned the current strength of the US-Israel relationship.

Obama brings this message of support for Israel at a time when the region is erupting. The Syrian civil war still rages with over 70,000 dead and now it is creeping towards the borders of Israel and Lebanon. There also real concerns for the stock-piles of chemical weapons held by the Assad regime and fears that they may be transported to Hezbollah or used on the Syrian people - especially in light of conflicting reports about alleged chemical weapons use there on Tuesday . The stability of Jordan's moderate regime is unknown - Israel's only remaining reliable peace partner - while in Egypt, protests against the Islamist agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood government have become endemic, and the economy looks headed for disaster. And of course, there is the looming threat of Iran's nuclear program, which frightens not only Israel but many in the Gulf region, and which could also lead to nuclear proliferation across the whole volatile region.

Therefore, Obama's visit to Israel was designed to tell both Israelis and their enemies that Israel is strong and that the US has its back. And perhaps the President also hoped that with, this sense of strength, it will make Israelis even more convinced that it has capacity to move ahead with the peace process, despite the tumult and uncertainty in the region.

He seems to have been pretty successful in achieving the first goal. As for the second, many would argue it is not Israelis that need convincing to move ahead with peace talks, given that it is the Palestinian leadership who are still refusing to negotiate, and the Palestinian leadership which is too divided to agree to and enforce a sustainable two-state peace. Happily, there are indications that the Obama Administation is prepared to emphasise a more gradual "step by step approach" to peacemaking, focused on building confidence and the politically achievable, which takes account of the mistakes made at the beginning of his first term and the Palestinian realities on the ground.

Sharyn Mittelman


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