Obama’s Middle East visit: 50 shades of gray

On March 21, four days before Pesach, Sarah Chazizza was at home in Sderot, doing what people do before Pesach. She was cleaning. It was still early in the morning, but the weather was getting warmer and the windows were wide open to let the dusted furniture breath. So the sound of the siren, and then the sound of an explosion, could not be missed inside Sarah’s home. Not that she ever missed it. 

She knew it was coming; she knew it was coming, she said later. As soon as President Barack Obama landed, she knew it was only a matter of time until someone in Gaza would send the American president a message by way of targeting her family. Luckily, no one was hurt this time. But after the first 24 hours of celebratory mood, hyped by the usual media frenzy, that sound of a siren was a wake-up call for everyone: As nice and as friendly as the president might be, the Middle East doesn’t change as a result of eloquent speeches and cheery ceremonies. It doesn’t change by making people more trustful of faraway leaders’ promises to have one’s “back.” It doesn’t change by leaders being nice to one another. 

That same Thursday morning, a telling caricature appeared in the pages of the Maariv daily newspaper. It was the familiar scene from “Casablanca,” with Netanyahu playing Bogart and, shown from the back, he is telling Obama, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” In the caricature, though, unlike the movie, Obama’s response makes the punch line: “Let’s not overdo it.” Obama and Netanyahu went out of their way to make Obama’s first visit to Israel as a sitting president a success, to keep up spirits and open a new page of better relations. In many ways, it truly was a success (or so it seems as I write this from Tel Aviv, when Obama hasn’t yet left the country). A better mood makes it easier for both leaders to communicate; it reduces the level of mutual suspicion; it gives both leaders’ aides some breathing room.

That Obama was finally able to make this trip and take this must-visit burden off his shoulders barely changed any well-established realities. This three-day visit was meant to make it easier for the two leaders to navigate the coming three years — or maybe four (Obama will be in office until January 2017, Netanyahu publicly talked about the next “four years,” meaning he doesn’t quite buy the gloomy projections for his new coalition’s longevity). And surely, having an open and tension-free dialogue between Obama and Netanyahu can help. But even while Obama was still here, still trying to be nice, disagreements were evident and the potential for future trouble obvious.

It begins with priorities. Netanyahu made sure to begin his part of the shared press conference by talking about Iran, and left the Palestinian issue for the end of his speech. Obama began with Israel’s security needs and then turned to the Palestinians. He left Iran for the end, and on Iran the president had little to offer. “We do not have a policy of containment when it comes to a nuclear Iran,” Obama said. This is present tense — still leaving the door open to future decision that, had the diplomatic course been a failure, it is better to turn to containment rather than military action.

Obama, as expected, reiterated the worn-out “all options on the table” formula. It’s old news, and overly vague. All options can mean war, or containment. If Netanyahu believes — as he was adamant in repeating — that only a “clear and credible threat of military action” will make diplomacy useful, that “threat” was nowhere to be found in Obama’s words. The president said, “There is not a lot of light, a lot of daylight between our countries’ assessments in terms of where Iran is right now.” However, there’s clearly daylight between the prescriptions the two leaders have for the road ahead. Netanyahu would like to see a threat that America refuses to provide. All Obama has given him is: “I would not expect that the prime minister would make a decision about his country’s security and defer that to any other country — any more than the United States would defer our decisions about what was important for our national security.” In other words: You can go it alone for all I care, the United States still doesn’t see the Iranian threat as one for which it is currently willing to commit to war.

Obama speech in Israel

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech on Mideast policy on March 21 at the Jerusalem Convention Center. Photo by REUTERS/Jason Reed 

A lot of advice was given to Obama as his visit began, framed in ways such as how to “speak Israeli” (Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic) or “The Ten Commandments of Visiting Israel” (Oren Kessler, Foreign Policy). While offering some great advice, all this still takes a somewhat dim view of the Israeli mind — as if what motivates Israelis to dislike of Obama (just 12 percent saying he is “pro-Israel” on the eve of his visit) is his inability to kindle the magic by sending soothing messages to “the people.” As if a couple of nice speeches and warm receptions could make all disagreements go away and be forgotten. Dignifying Israelis with more rational motivations would be proper at this moment. Israelis might exaggerate the extent to which Obama is cool toward Israel; they might not give him enough credit for the many great things he has done to help Israel. However, they also might have a legitimate case for remaining skeptical with regard to his policies — policies that no speech can hide and no smile can erase. 

Good things happened though during Obama’s visit here, and not just between him and the prime minister. He made clear his unwavering commitment to an Israel that is “Jewish”; his acknowledgement of the historic ties of Jews to Israel stand out, correcting somewhat the erroneous message of the president’s Cairo speech in 2009. “More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here,” Obama acknowledged right when he landed on the afternoon of March 20 at Ben-Gurion Airport. Truly, this wasn’t the first time that Obama has amended his previous message, however doing so in Israel, as he was going to visit the burial site of Zionism’s founding father, Theodor Herzl, made it noteworthy. 

To have had such a friendly visit is important, not just for the sake of diplomacy but also for political reasons: to calm the Israeli opposition’s talk of the government ruining relations with the United States and possibly, hopefully, sending a clear message Obama’s supporters at home. Last week, in one of a series of Israel-related analyses released by Gallup, an emphasis was put on the gap between Republicans and Democrats regarding Israel. It is — not for the first time — one of a handful of countries on which the gap is widest. “The current 18-point gap in views of Israel, with Republicans’ 78 percent favorable rating compared with Democrats’ 60 percent, is the only double-digit difference in which Republicans are the more positive group.” A positive Obama visit, and a positive Obama message are important, if one believes that nudging Israel into a partisan corner doesn’t truly serve the nation’s long-term interests.

Whether Obama can change Democratic perceptions though is unclear, considering the results of a previous Gallup analysis showed that Republicans want more American pressure on the Palestinian side (net “more pressure on Palestinians” +47 percent), while Democrats want something Obama didn’t quite provide: more pressure on Israel (net pressure on Palestinians -4 percent). In a shared press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Thursday afternoon, Obama acrobatically avoided any harsh criticism of Israeli settlements and made very clear that he sees no point in a continued Palestinian insistence on a settlements freeze as a precondition to future Israeli-Palestinian talks. In that, he made good on keeping differences with Israel tamed and refrained from reigniting the debates that marked his first term. He also told the Palestinian leadership that it’s time to climb down from the tree on which they’ve been sitting to a large extent because of their belief that the American president would coerce Israel into more concessions.  

Obama and Abbas

President Barack Obama and Palestinian Authorty President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 21. Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters

Minutes after the Obama-Abbas joint appearance, Israel’s deputy foreign minister – the newly appointed Likud hawk Ze’ev Elkin — made no attempt to hide his satisfaction. When he was reminded that Netanyahu had renewed his commitment to a two-state solution during the visit, Elkin appeared barely disturbed. Do you support it, he was asked. Now it was his turn at the acrobatics-linguistic machine. “Personally,” he still opposes the two-state solution, but as a member of the government he would have to “represent” the “view of the prime minister,” and, he was quick to add, all this seems quite irrelevant at this time. As long as the Palestinians stay on the sidelines, there’s no point in wasting time on internal disagreements. 

In Obama’s much-anticipated speech in Jerusalem to young Israelis, he seemed more eager than Elkin to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and establish a Palestinian state. However, his message was not necessarily more concrete. We all know that peace is necessary, and coveted, and that it would make Israel more secure — that is, if a secured peace actually is within reach, which most Israelis greatly doubt, before and after Obama’s visit. The president urged Israeli youngsters to “demand” peace. They can make such demands if they want. Alas, the new senior member of Netanyahu’s coalition, Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi, quickly responded to Obama’s call by saying that the people of Israel can’t be called occupiers within their own country. So clearly, the “demand” would not go very far with Bennett.

Which leaves us essentially where we began. And leaves this article conflicted in a way that newspaper editors don’t always like. To grab readers’ attention, a writer is driven to make a choice — either this visit was essential and very successful, or it was a failure, a shame and a waste of time. Black or white. Shades of gray are popular only in steamy books of a bluish nature.

The truth though, is that Obama’s visit was a grayish event. It was a feel-good trip offering the hope to better relations and to clear the air, making future debates between the two governments less contentious. That has merit and should be enough to have made Obama’s trip a worthy one. 

But we should make no mistake: a civil debate is still a debate; a polite and contradictory assessment of threats remains a contradiction; a respectful disagreement is still a disagreement. And so, the potentially explosive Middle East looked at Obama’s visit and returned to business as usual.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, please visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain.