Apologies for having been offline almost the whole week. I’ve been extremely busy with Pesach preparations, plus babysitting for my grandkids while my son and very pregnant daughter-in-law (she’s in her 10th month…) went to hospital – only to be told it’s another false alarm. I guess that baby has got to be born some time. My son is reckoning on Seder night. :-)
Meanwhile President Obama’s visit to Israel is more or less over, much to the relief of the besieged residents of Jerusalem who’ve had to suffer huge traffic jams and road closures davka in the week before Pesach when everyone wants to get in their Pesach supplies.
Obama started out on the right foot in his first remarks when he got off the plane, when he said that he was in “the historic homeland of the Jewish People”.
Obama said, “More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish state of Israel, was a rebirth, a redemption, unlike any in history. Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages: to be masters of their own fate in their own sovereign state. Just as we have for these past 65 years, the United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend.”
The U.S. “stands with Israel because it is in our fundamental security interest,” Obama said, citing that as the reason why America “was the very first nation” to recognize Israel 65 years ago.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s new economy and trade minister, said Obama’s speech was “important because it recognizes the deep historical connection between the people of Israel and the land of Israel.”
Obama avoided the mention of a settlement freeze; in fact he called on the Palestinians to return to peace talks without any preconditions.
He also seemed to give Israel a green light on attacking Iran, although his remarks are still being parsed by various analysts. Barry Rubin remarks:
Almost openly making an appeal for domestic support, Obama stated:
In short — and I don’t think is just my opinion; I think, Bibi, you would share this — America’s support for Israel’s security is unprecedented, and the alliance between our nations has never been stronger.
In other words: Mr. Prime Minister — don’t you think that I’m the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House?
Netanyahu wasn’t going to say “no.” His answer later in the press conference, though, was on his own terms:
I appreciate the fact that the president has reaffirmed, more than any other president, Israel’s right and duty to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. We just heard those important words now. And I think that sums up our — I would say, our common view.
In other words, yes, Obama has laid the basis for Israel saying that he is willing to support it in defending itself, even if that requires an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. I don’t think Netanyahu believes that, but he has to try that gambit.
Then Obama made an extraordinary statement:
I think that what Bibi alluded to, which is absolutely correct, is each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of military action. And Israel is differently situated than the United States, and 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.
What Obama just said publicly is that if Netanyahu decided that Israel’s defense required an attack on Iran, the president would not expect the prime minister to be deterred by U.S. opposition.
Did Obama mean that?
It is hard to believe that he did, yet no Israeli leader is going to miss that apparent “green light.”
The Arabs of course are most unhappy with Obama’s about-turn in relation to his Cairo speech of 2009.
Arabs see the visit as a reversal of Obama’s initial attitude upon beginning his first term in 2009 and his famous outreach to the Muslim world, symbolized by his speech in Cairo that same year. Arabs held out hope that the president would rebalance American foreign policy, long seen as slanted and detrimental to the Palestinian position.
As if to respond to Obama’s visit, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tehran would destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa if Israel attacked Iran.
The Palestinians in particular were very upset with Obama’s stance:
“We were hoping that Obama would adopt a tougher policy against settlements,” the official said.
“Obama wants us to return to the negotiating table unconditionally and while construction in the settlements continues.
This is something that no Palestinian leader can agree to.”
According to another official, Obama also ignored Abbas’s demand that Washington exert pressure on Israel to release Palestinian prisoners before the resumption of any peace talks.
I never thought I’d say this, but good on Obama.
Palestinian protestors told Obama to stay out of Ramallah, burned the US flag, threw shoes at pictures of Obama and trampled on his photo,
During the past week, hundreds of Palestinians throughout the West Bank have participated in demonstrations against the US president.
In a Wednesday demonstration held in Ramallah, protesters tore up a large portrait of Obama and called on passersby to step on the picture’s shredded remains.
In Bethlehem, portraits of Obama put up in honor of his visit were torn down and disfigured, and some were spray painted over with swastikas and black Xs.
Israel Radio reported that on Wednesday night, Palestinians burned US flags hung from electricity poles in Bethlehem ahead of Obama’s visit to the town on Friday. Obama is scheduled to visit the Church of the Nativity, the legendary birthplace of Jesus.
All this in contrast to the pomp and ceremony, flags and posters displayed in Jerusalem welcoming the President.
Let us also not forgot, as I mentioned above, that Palestinian terrorists also shot rockets into Israel from Gaza, timing the fire with Obama’s arrival in Israel.
Obama’s speech to students in Jerusalem unsurprisingly met with mixed reactions, as the JPost reports:
Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett mentioned the rockets fired at Sderot in the morning, saying they were the result of the previous withdrawal from land, as were thousands of victims over the years.
“A Palestinian state is not the right way,” the Bayit Yehudi chairman said. “The time has come for new ideas and creativity to solve the Middle East conflict.”
“Anyway,” he added, “a nation does not occupy its own land.”
Still, Bennett said he recognized that Obama’s words came from concern for and true friendship with Israel.
Likud MK Miri Regev considered Obama’s speech “offensive to Netanyahu.”
“I was surprised by his words about a Palestinian state, that he didn’t mention the word ‘Jerusalem’ and that he said, ‘Leaders must bring peace,’ as if Netanyahu doesn’t want peace,” she said.
According to the MK, Obama should have spoken to Israeli leaders in the Knesset and not “gone over their heads.”
International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz, also from the Likud, took a more positive view of Obama’s speech, praising it in an interview with Channel 10 News.
Steinitz said he was glad Obama said there should not be preconditions for peace talks, did not mention pre-1967 lines and said he would not push Israel.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) called the speech “important and inspiring.”
MK Itzik Shmuli (Labor) attended Obama’s speech, saying the US president “wanted to speak directly to the young people of Israel about a peace treaty and responsibility for Israel’s security.”
“They must take his words about pressuring the leadership as a demand, and not just a recommendation,” Shmuly said.
Peace Now head Yariv Oppenheimer expressed joy that “finally someone is breaking the nationalist brainwashing that conquered the Israeli public in recent years.”
MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List- Ta’al) had mixed feelings about the speech.
“There is nothing new about Obama’s words on a Jewish state. That is the American government’s stance in recent years, which we oppose,” Tibi explained.
However, he approved of the second half of the speech, in which Obama “clearly mentioned the Palestinian suffering under the occupation and showed understanding of the suffering of Palestinian prisoners’ families and creating a Palestinian state together with doing justice.”
Tibi also lauded the “refreshing” development of Israeli students clapping when Obama spoke about ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state.
That last comment of Tibi’s is not surprising when taken in the context of the hand-picked audience, who were, in the words of the Times of Israel, a friendly left-leaning student crowd:
Obama had a friendly, clearly left-leaning crowd of about 1,000, mostly university students and reporters, who applauded loudly and often. The speech was marred only once when a pro-Palestinian protester shouted from the hall.
The interruption came a moment after Obama mentioned the “lively debate” in Israeli society, and he referenced his comment — “That’s the lively debate we were talking about” — without losing his grin or his composure, earning a standing ovation from the crowd as the heckler was removed.
The cool attitude toward Israel that Obama displayed in his first term has been dramatically replaced during this visit by a warm, almost Clintonesque charm offensive that appears to be working.
But not everyone was taken in by his warmth and charm:
“We’re so easy,” said Channel 2 TV’s political reporter, Udi Segal, after the speech. “Twenty-four hours, a few hugs, and that’s it.” Not doing this four years ago might be remembered as one of the foreign policy errors of Obama’s first term.
He praised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as real partners. “There’s an opportunity. There’s a window,” he said. “Peace is possible.”
Most Israelis, even moderates, are highly skeptical of that point. Palestinian leaders turned down Israeli peace proposals in 2000, 2001, and 2008. The Islamists of Hamas now control Gaza, and could well come to power in the West Bank after any Israeli withdrawal. Few Israelis believe that a peace agreement of the kind envisioned in the 1990s is a real possibility.
But Obama was not specific about what he was calling on Israel to do, expressing instead a hope that Israelis will pressure their leaders to pursue peace. Earlier in the day, he made clear that he opposes preconditions to talks — a reversal of his first term, when he introduced a demand for a settlement freeze that played a part in deadlocking negotiations for several years.
Noa Regev, a student from the Technion in Haifa, said not everyone in the hall was enamored of the speech.
“It might have looked to you that the whole hall was clapping in agreement, but where I sat I heard enough people moaning, ‘What’s he talking about?’” she said.
“But I thought it was great. It’s good he didn’t just come here to butter us up,” Regev said.
Does this new, warm personal relationship between Netanyahu and Obama signal a new era? No, it does not, according to David Horowitz in the Times of Israel:
They’ve joked together, stripped out of their suit jackets together, walked arm-in-arm, called each other the familiar “Barack” and “Bibi.”
They’ve also sought to assert that they largely see eye-to-eye on the key issues they’ve been discussing: Iran, Syria, the Palestinians.
But, Syria possibly excepted, they just don’t. And if you look closely at their comments so far on this first Obama presidential visit, including at that so-friendly press conference, that’s unmistakable.
On Iran, Obama may have legitimately asserted that “there is not a lot of light, a lot of daylight, between our countries’ assessments in terms of where Iran is right now.” But that’s not exactly the point. The real issue is not the assessments of Iran’s progress, but whether there’s any light between the two countries’ approaches to grappling with the consequences of those shared assessments — to stopping Iran.
And on that, the gulf was glaring. Obama said he was here “to understand how the Israeli government and the prime minister is approaching this [Iranian] problem to make sure that there are no misunderstandings there.” Misunderstandings, presumably not. Differences, absolutely.
But Netanyahu’s response was a far from dutiful okay, yes, all yours. “You have made it clear that you are determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. I appreciate your forthright position on this point,” was all he could manage. “Appreciate.” An interesting, carefully selected choice of word, invoked in Netanyahu’s prepared remarks, rather than off-the-cuff in answer to a question. Shimon Peres said earlier Wednesday that he trusts Obama to handle Iran. Netanyahu, most notably, didn’t. Because he doesn’t.
Instead, Netanyahu highlighted, at the airport and again at the press conference, his gratitude to Obama for restating Israel’s right to defend itself as it sees fit — with the implication that Israel might indeed have to defend itself as it sees fit.
Similarly, on the Palestinian front, there’s clearly been no reconciling of the two leaders’ fundamentally divergent mindsets. Netanyahu proved willing to declare his support for “two states for two peoples,” but his misgivings about Mahmoud Abbas have not been alleviated, and he remains convinced that the Palestinian leadership is neither willing nor able to agree to a permanent accord on terms Israel can live with.
Again, while Peres flatly declared Abbas a partner, Netanyahu — who has called the PA president that in the past, at the State Department in September 2010 — notably refrained from doing likewise.
Obama, by contrast, thinks the Palestinians deserve and are more than ready for a state — “an independent and sovereign state” to end the indignities of occupation, he made clear in his press conference with Abbas — and that this would benefit Israel. In a move toward Netanyahu’s position, he said in Ramallah that preconditions mustn’t be allowed to prevent progress. In complete contrast to Netanyahu’s assessment of what’s possible, he spoke of the path to a viable “broad-based agreement.”
He considers Israel’s settlement activity a counterproductive “challenge” to be overcome. It’s not “appropriate” or “constructive,” he said in Ramallah.
“Israel has a profound interest in a strong and effective Palestinian Authority,” Obama also asserted in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu doesn’t see things that way. He’s just put together a coalition with a strong pro-settlement component, and chosen to place strong settlement activists in key positions — at the Housing Ministry, the Knesset Finance Committee, even the Foreign Ministry.
Obama is genuinely engaged on a goodwill trip; it’s truly a mission of solidarity with Israel. But he still thinks the prime minister of this vibrant, innovative, admirable Israel is wrong-headed and inclined to follow counter-productive policies. And Netanyahu still thinks this charismatic, quick-witted leader of Israel’s essential ally doesn’t get our region, hasn’t internalized its ruthlessness.
And that’s going to severely test the impression of friendship and partnership the two leaders have worked so hard, and with no little success, to project during this visit.
Read it all. It’s a very thought-provoking analysis.