Administration officials downplayed expectations for President Obama’s Mideast trip. And as it turned out, the visit was long on symbolism and short on substance.
But because first-term impressions resulted in Israeli and American misperceptions about Obama’s support of Israel, getting the symbolism right was key to advancing the substantive issues. From that perspective, the trip was a success.
Obama reassured Israeli leaders and citizens that he understands their national narrative as well as their current challenges, and that America has Israel’s back as it is buffeted by increasing instability in every direction. Consider: In Syria, spiraling violence now allegedly involves the use of chemical weapons. Syrian refugees are further destabilizing Jordan and Lebanon. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government faces governing and economic crises. Iran’s potential nuclear weapons program poses an existential threat. And on Thursday militants in Hamas-led Gaza fired two rockets into Israel.
Obama shouldn’t have had to spend so much time mending fences. The reality — readily acknowledged by multiple Israeli leaders — is that the security ties have never been stronger. “The relationship actually reached a peak on issues that have to do with the qualitative military edge, the situation with Iran” and antimissile defenses, Roey Gilad, Israel’s consul general to the Midwest, told an editorial writer this week.
The reassurance should echo beyond Israel. Here at home, absurd assertions like Mitt Romney’s statement that Obama threw Israel “under the bus” should be rightfully, and finally, discredited. And globally, Obama’s and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closely calibrated statements on Iran — including Netanyahu notably agreeing with Obama on how long it would take for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon — may further spur diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis.
Obama’s visit, and vision, went beyond Israel. Before going to Jordan, he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and reiterated his support for Palestinian aspirations, too: “The core issue right now is how do we get sovereignty for the Palestinian people and ensure security for the Israeli people.”
The United States can push, but moving toward a viable two-state solution is ultimately up to the two states. And currently, there are in effect three states: Israel; the West Bank, ruled by Abbas’ Fatah faction; and Gaza, ruled by Hamas, which Israel, the United States and the European Union rightly consider a terrorist organization.
Obama strategically softened his stance on ceasing settlement construction as a negotiating precondition, but did make it clear that “we do not consider settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace.”
What can advance that cause are tough compromises between, and within, Israel and Palestine. This would be difficult under any scenario, but will be especially hard given the Palestinian split and the uncertainties surrounding Netanyahu’s newly constituted coalition government, which now includes more moderates but remains stacked with many hard-liners.
It’s too soon to tell, but perhaps Obama’s reassurances will increase the resolve of Israelis to press for peace. He seemed to hope so when he said in a nationally televised speech that “speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do.”
Gilad, who called Obama’s visit “crucial,” also pointed to the link between citizens and leaders. “If the Israeli people feel like they are all alone, they might become more defensive, more conservative, but if they feel that the No. 1 world empire is on the right hand, then they will feel more confident, they will be willing to take more risks.”
The Israeli people are not alone. Neither are the Palestinians. But ultimately it is up to them to solve internal conflicts so they can then address the seemingly eternal one between each other.