When Barack Obama left to visit Israel in March, expectations could hardly have been lower. He had a relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that was widely described as “frosty.” The two had feuded over everything from Obama’s insistence, early in his first term, that Israel freeze settlement building to Netanyahu’s repeated threat to bomb Iran unilaterally. The rapport between them was so strained that Netanyahu had all but openly rooted for Mitt Romney to win in November.
The Israeli public, too, viewed Obama with suspicion. He had not visited Israel in his first term, and in his famous 2009 Cairo speech, he was said to have argued that the Holocaust justified Israel’s creation, a grave insult to a country that bases its right to exist on the Jewish people’s historic and uninterrupted presence in the Holy Land. That Obama had not in fact said this in Cairo, that other presidents had waited until their second term to visit Israel, and that under Obama military aid to Israel was at a record high did not seem to matter. Polls showed that a sizable portion of Israelis viewed Obama as hostile to their interests and partial to the Palestinians.
The president’s aim during this visit was to turn this unpromising state of affairs around, a fact that became apparent as soon as he exited Air Force One. “I know that in stepping foot on this land, I walk with you on the historic homeland of the Jewish people,” Obama said upon arriving at Ben Gurion Airport—magic words meant to rebut the impression left by his Cairo speech. He would elaborate on that formulation over the next three days, to the delight of Israeli media commentators, underscoring the point with a visit to the tomb of Theodor Herzl.
Before the trip, former U.S. diplomat and Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller, echoing a widely held view, predicted in the Washington Post that “[t]here isn’t likely to be a dramatic transformation in Obama and Netanyahu’s relationship, and certainly not on this visit.” But in their joint appearances in Israel, the president and Netanyahu—whose power had been weakened in recent Israeli elections even as Obama’s was strengthened in November—were all smiles and pats on the back, conspicuously agreeing with each other’s positions on Iran and Syria, trading jokes about their respective children’s good looks, and displaying such bonhomie that NBC’s Mark Murray called it a “bromance.”
Then came the highlight of the trip, Obama’s address to college students in Jerusalem. The president began the speech by noting the coming of Passover and, to build a connection with his audience, explaining the significance of the Exodus narrative to both African Americans and himself. “For me, personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, the story spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home.” He talked of the Jewish people’s centuries of suffering and exile and of the sustaining dream of an independent homeland. He spoke of the struggles and sacrifices of Israel’s founding generation, and praised the country Israelis have built, with its high-tech entrepreneurial economy and its culture of vibrant public debate. He extolled the shared interests and “unbreakable bonds of friendship” between Israel and the U.S.
Most importantly, he described Israel’s security situation as Israelis themselves see it: that the country had taken “risks for peace” by withdrawing from Lebanon and Gaza only to get rocket fire in return; that its diplomatic entreaties have too often been met by rejection and anti-Semitism; and that the skepticism toward the peace process felt by many Israelis, especially the younger generation, was completely understandable.
Then, after portraying the world as seen through Israeli eyes, he asked his audience to see through Palestinian eyes—their lives hemmed in by an occupying army, unable to move about freely or farm their lands, subject to attacks by settlers that go unpunished. “Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land,” he said, linking the Zionist vision he’d just acclaimed to an argument for the renewal of the peace process. His supposedly jaded young audience roared with approval.
“This will not be the same country after this speech,” gushed Haartz columnist Bradley Burston that night. A week later, a Jerusalem Post poll found that the percentage of Israelis who consider Obama more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel had fallen from 36 to 16 percent.
The question now is whether Obama can or will leverage his enhanced stature into peace negotiations that will go anywhere. No one has ever lost money betting against the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and there are good reasons to be doubtful now—not the least of which is that Netanyahu’s governing coalition, which contains representatives of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, would likely fall apart if pressed to accept concessions to the Palestinians.
That said, it is possible for one presidential trip to change the dynamics of seemingly unyielding geopolitical problems. I’ve witnessed it myself.
In November of 1999, President Bill Clinton flew to Turkey and Greece on a trip aimed at easing tensions in the broader Balkan region, and in particular between those two countries. As the Greek American on Clinton’s speechwriting staff, it fell to me to write the address he would give in Athens. The Greek-Turkish problem was not nearly as geostrategically important as the Israel-Palestine situation, but it seemed no less intractable. Sparked by the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, it had roots in the Ottoman occupation of Greek lands centuries before. As recently as 1996, the Greek and Turkish militaries had almost come to blows over the disputed sovereignty of an uninhabited Aegean islet; Clinton himself had had to talk the two countries into holstering their weapons.
Then, in the summer of 1999, Turkey was hit by a devastating earthquake, and the Greeks responded by sending badly needed humanitarian aid—a spontaneous outpouring of sympathy that surprised both sides. A few months later, Greece itself suffered an earthquake, and Turkey responded with assistance. Seizing the moment, the two countries’ foreign ministers, Ismail Cem of Turkey and George Papandreou of Greece, began a round of “seismic diplomacy” meant to explore more permanent ways of building trust. Chief among these was a deal the Clinton administration had been advocating: Greece would end its objection to Turkey becoming a candidate for membership in the European Union, something Turkey desperately wanted. In return, Turkey would amend its constitution to better protect its minorities (including its shrinking Greek population), reduce the role of the Turkish military in civilian politics, and press for a negotiated end to the division of Cyprus that would include the removal of Turkish troops from the island.
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