Monday August 31, 2015
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Isi Leibler

Obamas visit to Israel: a turning point?

Both American and Israeli leaders must have heaved sighs of relief when Air Force One departed from Ben-Gurion International Airport and U.S. President Barack Obama's visit culminated on a high note for both countries.

Obama engaged in an unprecedented charm offensive to overcome the intense Israeli distrust toward him stemming from his initial efforts to appease the Arabs by "providing daylight" between the U.S. and Israel. To that end, four years ago in Cairo, he groveled to the Muslim world and basically endorsed the Palestinian narrative. Subsequently he demanded a unilateral settlement freeze which included the Jewish suburbs of east Jerusalem, issued one-sided condemnations of Israel and repeatedly snubbed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

What particularly rankled Israelis in his Cairo speech was his attribution of the creation of Israel to the Holocaust, effectively ignoring the Jewish links with Eretz Israel for 3000 years.

His first speech on arrival at the airport totally repudiated this. He related movingly "to the Jewish homeland" in which Jews prayed and tended the land for 3000 years, describing the rebirth of the Jewish state as an unparalleled historic act of redemption. He subsequently said that Israel was the guarantor that the Holocaust would never recur. He reaffirmed that "the U.S. is proud to stand with you as your greatest ally and your greatest friend," describing the "unbreakable" U.S.-Israel alliance as "eternal."

He visited the Israel Museum where he viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls evidence of the historical linkage between Israel and the Jewish people. He also visited the grave of Zionism's patriarch, Theodor Herzl, directly repudiating Erdoğan's outrageous remarks against Zionism. This facilitated Netanyahu's unpleasant backing down to Turkey, which was justified for tangible strategic reasons.

Obama repeated his mantra opposing settlement expansion and called for implementing the two-state solution. He irritated many Israelis by referring to Palestinian suffering without relating it to terrorism and incitement as well as praising the Palestinian Authority as a genuine peace partner. But for the first time he explicitly urged the Palestinians to accept Israel's offer of negotiating without preconditions. He also made no demands on Israel for further unilateral concessions and hinted but avoided explicitly repeating his former demand that the indefensible 1949 armistice lines with land swaps serve as a benchmark for negotiations. But there is already talk of Secretary of State John Kerry reintroducing the Arab League "peace initiative" based on the 1967 borders and repatriation to Israel of Arab refugees.

Israelis also remain somewhat queasy as to Obama's ultimate intentions regarding Iran. While expressing hope that diplomacy could still succeed, he reiterated that he was not bluffing when he vowed, as a last resort, to exercise all options to prevent the Iranians from achieving nuclear status, but still declined to set deadlines. There are also concerns that the U.S. may agree to a partial deal in which the Iranians would be permitted to develop medium enriched uranium, enabling them to create a bomb within a very short time span.

Yet on the positive side, a nuclear Iran is now recognized as a threat to the U.S. and the West. And for the first time, Obama stated explicitly that the U.S. accepted and respected Israel's right to take whatever steps it deemed necessary to defend itself a clear message to the Iranians that if they maintained their current course, the U.S. would not block an Israeli strike.

If, after his repeated undertakings, Obama fails to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, he will lose enormous global credibility among friends and foes alike and irretrievably tarnish his legacy.

It would however be premature for Israelis to conclude that Obama's intensely friendly statements and hugs signify a reversal of his political approach.

Even on this visit, unlike Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, he refused to address the Knesset the embodiment of Israel's democratic ethos; declined to visit the Western Wall and the Temple Mount to avoid compromising U.S. policy which stipulates that these are disputed areas; and excluded Ariel University students from his address to students.

American Jewish journalist Jeffery Goldberg, who is close to Obama, described his views on Israel as being more akin to Israel's far left newspaper Haaretz than to the political mainstream. His administration is thus likely to remain isolationist, continue to appease rather than confront Islamist regimes and still seek to promote a settlement based on the indefensible 1949 armistice lines.

But Obama is a pragmatist and aware that opinion polls demonstrate that Americans today are more supportive of Israel than ever before and that ongoing confrontation with the Jewish state would create needless problems in Congress where he faces crucial challenges. Indeed, on the eve of his visit, over three-quarters of the Congress petitioned him to stand by Israel. He has probably also concluded that one-sided condemnations of Israel have been counterproductive. He thus repudiated calls from the Far Left, including Israeli so-called "peaceniks" and Jewish organizations like J Street, urging him to employ "tough love" and pressure Israel. More importantly, he conveyed a powerful message to the Islamists.

Some Israelis will dismiss his utterances as mere platitudes and warn against becoming bedazzled by a false dawn. But the political gravitas of his statements should not be underestimated. Never has an American president spoken out with such commitment and passion about Israel and effectively identified himself with the Zionist vision.

Indeed, without suggesting that Israelis were transformed overnight into fans, his unprecedented passionate Zionist speeches and extraordinary efforts to overcome the personal animus with Netanyahu did more than merely ease acute concerns. At least symbolically, they represented a sea change and historically will unquestionably be recorded as the highlight of his visit.

Politicians must be judged by their actions. While the selection of Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary, uncertainty over timing in relation to Iran, the administration's infatuation with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and the ongoing U.S. "engagement" with undemocratic Islamist regimes remain grounds for concern, the powerful messages of friendship and support directed toward Israel by an American president are of enormous significance.

Netanyahu, who only days earlier succeeded in cobbling together a government, must be immensely satisfied with Obama's effusive public displays of friendship. Netanyahu spoke for the entire nation when conveying gratitude for U.S. military support, which, despite the tensions, actually expanded under the Obama administration.

However, most Israelis appreciate that we cannot subcontract our security to any third party not even the United States and must rely on our own defensive capabilities.

In the short term, achieving a peace settlement remains a mirage. However, transitory agreements can be implemented, which would improve the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis.

The new Israeli government is in an ideal position to move in this direction. If, instead of pressuring Israel to commit to final borders or make further unilateral concessions, the Obama administration endorses its efforts to create interim or partial agreements providing the Palestinians with improved quality of life, this would represent considerable progress. Over time, it may even encourage the emergence of a moderate Palestinian leadership willing to negotiate toward a comprehensive peace settlement.

Isi Leibler's website can be viewed at He may be contacted at

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