Amid great fanfare, President Barack Obama made his first trip as POTUS (President of the United States) to Israel. The three-day trip in March, according to Ben Sales (JTA, March 21) was designed to “persuade Israelis that the United States is committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” “promote the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, albeit without any specific deliverables” and “charm the pants off the Israeli people.”
A 2009 poll showed that fewer than 10 percent of Israelis had a favorable view of Obama. A March 2013 poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that 54 percent of the 600 Jewish Israelis surveyed said they did not trust Obama to consider and safeguard Israel’s interests. A public relations move was in order, especially at a time when Israeli election results had considerably more to do with the socioeconomic picture inside of Israel than with peace on its borders.
While this was the President’s third trip to Israel overall, his critics are quick to point out that he did not include Israel on his itinerary when he visited the Middle East shortly after the beginning of his first term and that his relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been strained. While reactions to the trip are mixed, friend and foe alike agree that the charm aspect worked and progress on much of the substantive issues remains to be seen. A rocket attack in Sderot during the visit emphasized the fact that peace is a long way off.
As JTA reported, “From the moment he stepped off Air Force One, President Obama was greeted with big smiles and warm embraces in Israel, and he gave back the same. The President inspected a U.S.-financed Iron Dome missile defense battery, met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, visited the Israel Museum, paid homage at the gravesite of the father of modern Zionism and, in a much-anticipated speech in Jerusalem, delivered a call to pursue peace. Obama and his advisers emphasized repeatedly that Obama would not be unveiling any grand new initiatives on the trip, but in his speech in Jerusalem he made no secret of his ultimate hope for the region: ‘two states for two peoples.’”
According to Mati Tuchfeld, Shlomo Cesana and Gideon Allon in Israel Hayom (JNS.org, March 22), “Analysts agreed that it was a great achievement for Israel that Obama told the Palestinians there should be no preconditions and no freeze of constructoon beyond the Green Line for peace talks to resume, and that Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The fact that the American President refrained from setting a timetable for the negotiations was also perceived as an achievement. On the question of Iran, analysts agreed that Israel had several reason to be pleased: First, Obama made it clear that Israel has the right to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. Second, the President said that Israel could rely on the U.S., which would not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. Third, Obama said that continued talks with Iran were not unlimited in time, stressing that ‘all options are on the table,’ and that the U.S. was willing to make good on that threat.”
Dr. Anat Maor, 2012-2013 Schusterman Project Israel Scholar, who currently teaches political science at UCI and who was a member of the Israeli Knesset for the Meretz Party from 1992 to 2003, agrees with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who said that Obama came as a tourist. Still, she thinks the idea of his having a connection to Israel is a good one, and she believes that peace is “necessary, moral and possible.” The trip, she said, was a step in the right direction.
“The trip was a great opening,” Dr. Maor explained. “It’s not enough without continuity, but if it opened gates, hearts and minds, it will be a good start.”
We can only hope so.