U.S. President Barack Obama, left, reignites the flame during his visit to the the Hall of Remembrance at the Vad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Israel, Friday, March 22, 2013. Standing behind Obama are Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, left, and Israeli President Shimon Peres. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
OK, so President Obama gave a great speech in Jerusalem yesterday to 1000 students.
He promised, again, to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. He pledged undying support for the Jewish state, and urged Israelis not to forsake efforts to negotiate peace with the Palestinians. His rhetoric was so powerful that it elicted repeated cheers.
Obama also gave a great speech to students in Cairo in 2009 aimed at winning Muslim hearts and minds, and that speech is best remembered for its failure to produce anything concrete. So can we hope for anything more substantial emerging from the president’s effort to win the hearts of Israeli Jews?
Here’s my short answer.
Despite much media focus on Obama’s rhetoric about peace, the most important aim of his trip was not on reviving the peace process. That process is going nowhere, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s eagerness to revive it. Israel’s new coalition government is focused on domestic affairs; it is filled with politicians who will promote settlements on the West Bank and oppose any movement towards a Palestinian state.
But that does not mean Obama’s trip was a failure. His main goal was to counter the widespread belief among Israelis that he is hostile to their country, despite the tight security cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem. Pouring on the charm, Obama probably made good headway with that goal.
The president’s second goal was to improve relations with prime minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, in hopes of convincing the Israeli leader to allow more time for tough diplomacy with Iran before launching an Israeli attack on Tehran’s nuclear program. Bibi’s remarks at a joint press conference hinted that Obama succeeded on that front.
Obama was also seeking to get both sides on the same page on dealing with Syria, given Israel’s concern that the Syrian regime may transfer some of its chemical weapons to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.
Towards this end, the biggest breakthrough of the trip was Bibi’s phone call today, at Obama’s urging, to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in which he apologized for the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010, in which Israeli troops killed 9 Turkish citizens. Bibi’s refusal, until now, to make such an apology, had frozen relations between the two countries. His about face will enable Turkey and Syria to restore normal relations – a crucial step in regional efforts to contain the fallout from the Syrian conflict.
Judged by Obama’s real goals, the trip can be considered a success.