Feature

Israel: Did Obama’s trip change anything?

In his “amazing speech,” the president both recognized and challenged Israel’s fears.

“Barack Obama came to Jerusalem to win over the Israeli people,” said Yossi Klein Halevi in NewRepublic.com, “and with a single speech, he did.” Last week the president made a moving declaration in Hebrew: “So long as there is a United States of America, ah-tem lo lah-vahd (you are not alone).” But he did more than recognize Israel’s fears, said Gershom Gorenberg in The American Prospect. He challenged them, too. The most powerful part of Obama’s “amazing speech” was his insistence that the Palestinians’ “right to justice must also be recognized.” No American president has “dared state that stark message before an Israeli audience before.” This was a “near perfect opening” for a new American diplomatic effort.

I’d call it incoherent, said John Podhoretz in the New York Post. The main takeaway from this trip is that Obama has abandoned his call for a freeze on Israeli settlement activity, which had been his “only Mideast peace policy innovation.” He changed his tune because his former “tough love” approach toward Israel had proved to be an utter disaster. Operation Desert Schmooze, as this trip has become known, came down to nothing more than Obama’s desperate attempt to repair his toxic relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That was the good part, said Max Boot in CommentaryMagazine.com. But then he “pivoted from praising Israelis to exhorting them to make peace with the Palestinians.” Just how are they supposed to do that? Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t “have the power” to deliver a two-state solution; Hamas, which controls Gaza, won’t even recognize Israel’s right to exist. Obama offered no practical blueprint for these issues. Clearly, “he’s much better at soaring rhetoric than at nuts-and-bolts implementation.”

The president did pull off one “solid accomplishment,” said Mark Landler in The New York Times. By prodding Netanyahu day after day, Obama got him to apologize to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for Israel’s role in the death of eight Turks in a 2010 military operation on a pro-Palestinian flotilla. Will Obama bring that same doggedness to the peace process? He’s subcontracted the groundwork to Secretary of State John Kerry. If he can now devise some suitable foundations fornew negotiations—an Israeli agreement to slow settlement-building, say—then maybe Obama can persuade Netanyahu and Abbas to get on the phone together, “as he did with his last feuding couple.”  

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