On Twitter, Blake Hounshell asked if President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel was a “huge” success or not. I think we first have to define what we mean by “success.” But by the definition that Obama himself set out, albeit vaguely, and the unforeseen consequences, I think it was, certainly, a “huge success.”
In fact, it was this very vagueness that underlined the success. By downplaying expectations of any dramatic new initiatives on any policy issue, Obama laid the groundwork for excitement whenever he did touch on these (whether Iran or the peace process). By pulling back from an active American role, he also helped Israelis feel in control of their foreign policy at a time when the country has been subject to intense demands from all corners about how to behave and what to do regarding Iran or the Palestinians.
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech to Israeli students at the International Convention Center on March 21, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Moshe Milner / GPO via Getty Images)
He washed away some of the personal tension that existed between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which in turn builds the necessary capital for coordinating with him on Iran and pressing him on the peace process.
If President Barack Obama had landed in Bethlehem by helicopter as planned, he would have landed just outside of Dheisheh Camp—a refugee camp in the south of Bethlehem.
However, as fate would have it, a sandstorm struck Jerusalem on Friday, causing Obama to have to drive to Bethlehem rather than fly. On his way, he undoubtedly saw the separation barrier that cuts Jerusalem off from Bethlehem and the checkpoint that makes the commute between the two cities last many hours—even though they are only seven kilometers apart.
Obama’s convoy was most likely waved through the checkpoint, but he saw the separation barrier with his own eyes. This was not part of his original itinerary.
A Palestinian woman holds a photograph as she protests on the streets of Bethlehem during the official visit of U.S. President Barack Obama on March 22, 2013. (Ilia Yefimovich / Getty Images)
Obama planned to come to Bethlehem Friday morning to once again meet with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as well as to pray at the Church of the Nativity. However, many Palestinians living in Bethlehem are perturbed that the President will be paying homage to the holy child as a religious duty, while ignoring many of the daily hardships of Palestinian life under the occupation.
“If I could show Obama anything, I would show him how we live in Dheisheh,” a young boy named Majd who lives in the camp but didn’t share his last name told me.
In Jerusalem yesterday, President Obama made a poignant plea for courage, fairness, and empathy to the Israeli people. It was an inspiring speech. But there was one line—just half a sentence—that left me scratching my head: “Palestinians,” the President declared, “must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state.”
Ammar Awad/Reuters, via Landov
Since 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that the Palestinians recognize Israel “as” a Jewish state, a demand flatly rejected by President Mahmoud Abbas. The problems with Netanyahu’s formulation have been ably explained by Sari Nusseibeh, Hussein Ibish, Hassan Jabareen, and Joseph Levine, among others. The PLO, they point out, has already recognized Israel. Formally recognizing it as a Jewish state, however, would imply Palestinian acceptance of a subordinate status for the country’s 1.7 million Muslim, Christian, and Druze citizens. It seems unlikely that so illiberal a proposition would be embraced by the United States’ first black president, a man who proclaimed that the United States Constitution, a document “stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery,” had “at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law.” Surely the President does not advocate staining a historic peace agreement by entrenching inequality in its terms. Instead, “true stability,” as he declared yesterday, “depends upon establishing a government that is responsible to its people, one that protects all communities within its borders, while making peace with countries beyond them.” That is as true for Israel as it is for Syria.
Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would also signal endorsement of its longstanding refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homes. Most Palestinian leaders understand that Israel is unlikely to consent to refugee return in a peace agreement, but President Obama must be aware that no Palestinian government can renounce the refugees’ right to return. That would be tantamount to denying Palestinians’ attachment to places that are part of our history, our memories, and our culture. Indeed, Palestinians can no more forswear our attachment to Jaffa or the Galilee, than Jews can forswear theirs to East Jerusalem or Hebron. And why shouldn’t a religious Jew aspire to live and study in the shadow of the Tomb of the Patriarchs? Why shouldn’t a Palestinian refugee aspire to rebuild her family’s home in Tantura? Even if realizing those aspirations is politically infeasible at this juncture, we need not foreclose their realization in the future.
In several appearances over two days in Israel this week, Barack Obama spoke at length about the Iranian nuclear crisis. Much to the chagrin of the Israeli right, Obama appears ready to continue on the current course of slow diplomacy, waiting out a possible deal or, less preferably, an Iranian move that would drive him to strike militarily. He was not above issuing the "credible threat" the Israeli leadership demanded of him. For the moment, at least, they were sated. But how long can it last?
The speech in Jerusalem yesterday was Obama sticking to his guns, so to speak. "I do believe that all of us have an interest in solving this peacefully," he told an auditorium full of Israeli university students, yielding momentarily to a tepid but rising applause. "A strong and principled diplomacy"—he paused a second time to soak up the emboldened clapping, and started again, only to be halted by louder cheering after declaring: "A strong and principled diplomacy is the best way to ensure that the Iranian government forsakes nuclear weapons." But the highest crescendos of applause at Obama's Iran remarks came when he said Iran was "not a danger that can be contained." This time, he spoke through the applause: "And as president, I've said all options are on the table for achieving our objectives. America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran." Then he stopped for more approbation, having before a foreign public just issued the threat of an American war, thinly veiled in its well worn euphemism, against a third nation.
"I think that in order to convince the Iranians and the Israelis that there's another way than an Israeli strike or an Iranian weapon, they have to say what they're saying," Dov Zakheim, a former American Department of Defense official, said of the U.S. position. In order to find this third way, he told me on the sidelines of an Israeli security conference last week, more pressure would be needed. "But other than that, you convince them that you're nutty enough to strike." He added that "circumstances can change"—the Iranians might walk down from the ledge, allowing the de facto containment policy already in effect to continue. I asked him if U.S. strikes could cause a significant delay in Iran's nuclear program. "Yes," he replied assuredly. Five years? "Mr. Obama only cares about three and a half," he said with a wry smile.
As of this writing, the Obama-Israel lovefest has worked beautifully. The President of the United States can update the traditional “Veni, vidi, vici,” I came, I saw, I conquered, with a more modernist version: “I came. I spoke. They swooned.”
It has been an extraordinary two days in the Holy Land. Jerusalem is eerily quiet, with the city in lockdown and few people daring to drive for fear of traffic snarl. One of the big heroes of the hour is “Waze,” the Israeli technology that spits out real-time traffic updates to drivers who can also input updates. When Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter visited in the 1970s, Israelis massed into Jerusalem, encouraged by the government, hoping to get a glimpse of the President, eager to thank him for his support. Part of today’s hyper-secure blanket around chief executives entails discouraging people from getting anywhere close as security cordons surround the security cordons. Noticing the powerful silence that resounds in a usually bustling city when the cars are still, my son Yoni exclaimed: “This is like Yom Kippur in Jerusalem today…except we can eat!”
U.S. President Barack Obama pays his respects at the grave of Theodore Herzl after Marines layed a wreath on his behalf during a visit to Yad Vashem at Mount Herzl on March 22, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Kobi Gideon/GPO, via Getty)
Amid the symphony of symbols, President Barack Obama succeeded. At some point during his first term, he realized that Israelis will respond more to positive than negative reinforcement, that progress in the Middle East depends on Israelis feeling safe, which means feeling loved by America’s President. His itinerary corrected the distortions of the Cairo Speech. Thursday’s stop at the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book celebrated the three-thousand-year-old relationship between Jews and their homeland, authenticated by archaeological evidence. Friday’s stop at Herzl’s grave honored Zionism’s founder, who died decades before the Holocaust, rooting the Zionist story in the romantic liberal nationalist movements of the nineteenth century.
The area around Al-Muqata’ah, President Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential compound, and the sight of his meeting with President Barack Obama, was a ghost town today. A few blocks away, in the center of town, several hundred demonstrators assembled for the second day in a row in Ramallah’s central Al-Manara Square to march toward the compound. Abdallah Tamimi, a protester held a sign that read, "Dear Obama, I want to return to my father’s village, Okay?” He told me: “Obama likes the United States, so he can stay,” he continues. “He will never be evicted from his land as we were.” As if on cue, the buzzing of helicopters filled the sky—the president had officially arrived in Ramallah. Once the helicopter touched down, the demonstrators began to march towards Al-Muqata’ah, chanting “Obama, Obama out out!” Some Israeli press reported even harsher words against Obama.
Past the rows of police and several city blocks of perimeter, Obama thanked Abbas for a warm welcome, congratulated the Palestinian people on building a state and building their economy and affirmed his support for the end of the occupation and Palestinians’ right to live in peace. At the demonstration, Abbas wasn't greeted as well: “Obama is meeting with Mahmoud Abbas,” a young woman at the demonstration named Suad, who prefers not to give her last name, told me. “Mahmoud Abbas does not represent the Palestinian people.” The feeling was mutual:Palestinian Authority security forces blocked entrance to the Muqata’ah. A bit more feisty than on Tuesday, a few marchers pushed through the first row of police, but the second and third lines halted their progress after a little shoving.
Larry Drowning/Reuters, via Landov
Another woman held a sign that read: “Dear Obama, Please. My son Mohammad Ajaj has been 21 years in your prison for nothing. He is innocent.” According to his brother, Omar Ajaj, Mohammad was arrested while he was visiting his uncles in the United States. His family in Palestine was never given a reason for the arrest, and hes lawyer has little contact with either Mohammad or his family. “At least if he were a prisoner here we could visit him,” Omar said. Several protesters held signs with pictures of high-profile Palestinian prisoners on them.
I am writing in the afterglow of President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem—an afterglow that lingers on as I re-read his words, and as I recall the boisterous applause that greeted them. I’m content to leave the word clouds and microscopic parsing of his speech to others. Likewise, I’ll leave to others the speculation about what might have been, if only this speech had been given years earlier. For my part, I am unrepentantly stopping to savor the moment.
Today President Obama made the most passionate, and compassionate, case for Israeli-Palestinian peace any U.S. leader has ever made. The case he made was politically pragmatic, grounded in the legitimate security concerns that define Israelis’ existence. It was also grounded, unapologetically and unambiguously, in universal moral truths, including the indefensibility of the occupation and of denying the Palestinians dignity, security, and self-determination in their own state.
My organization, Americans for Peace Now, earlier this week called on President Obama to speak directly to the people of Israel. We wanted him to cut through the fog of anti-Obama, anti-peace propaganda that has dominated the lives of Israelis for the past four years. We wanted Israelis to see President Obama for who he is: an American president who shares their security concerns, who fully grasps their skepticism about peace negotiations and peace agreements, and who understands the existential angst that grips them with respect to Israel’s survival as a state and Israel’s survival both as a democracy and a nation defined by its Jewish character. We believed that only then could Israelis appreciate that this President’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian issues flows from his understanding, at both a pragmatic and moral level, that all of these things that Israelis care about are ineluctably linked to the achievement of peace and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Today in Jerusalem, President Obama did not give a perfect speech. Contrary to what he said, the Passover story is not about “wandering in the desert”—that’s what happens after the Jews leave Egypt. It’s not about “faith in ... the Torah” either, since Moses doesn’t receive the Torah until after Passover. (That’s why Jews celebrate the giving of the Torah on Shavuot—Pentecost—50 days later.) Nor is it quite true that Theodor Herzl “had the foresight to see that the future of the Jewish people had to be reconnected to their past,” given that in 1903 he proposed accepting a Jewish state in Uganda, not a place with much connection to the Jewish past.
In his bid to show that he feels Jewish pain, Obama also occasionally bent the truth. It’s not true that Israelis in Sderot face rocket fire “simply because of who they are and where they live.” Yes, of course, Hamas and Islamic Jihad bombard Sderot in part because they reject Israel’s existence and hate Jews. But if that were the only reason, then there would have been no point in negotiating a ceasefire with Hamas earlier this year, as Israel did. By lifting restrictions on Gazan farmers and fishermen in return for a reduction in rocket fire, Israel itself tacitly acknowledged what Obama did not: that Hamas rocket fire is not motivated purely by anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, but by Israeli policy as well.
Obama also exaggerated when he said that Israelis “live in a neighborhood where many of your neighbors have rejected your right to exist.” In addition to Egypt and Jordan, which formally recognize Israel, every other Arab country has offered to do so if Israel returns to the 1967 lines and accepts a “just” and “agreed upon” solution for Palestinian refugees. The point isn’t that when the Arab League unveiled its peace initiative in 2002 and reaffirmed it in 2007 Israel should have signed on the dotted line. (I personally oppose a return to the exact 1967 lines.) But for Obama to discuss Arab rejectionism without referencing the Arab Peace Initiative was disingenuous.
With Obama visiting Israel, many groups are trying to get his attention to let the president know what they think he should do. In addition to the pleas from the peace camp and the Free Pollard camp, there is a document prepared by the Yesha Council titled “Judea and Samaria—It’s Jewish, It’s Vital, It’s Realistic.” This Kafkaesque document contains explanations of why demographics are on the settlers' side; why the Palestinians are stealing water from Israel; and a history of the legal nature of the settlements themselves. Most interesting, however, is the nine-step plan that the Yesha Council has included at the end of the document to fulfill its vision.
If we look at each step we can start to understand many of Habayit Hayehudi’s moves over the past few weeks.
Abir Sultan, EPA / Corbis
Step 1: Renewing the strong belief in the supremacy of the Jewish claim to the Jewish Homeland and the justness of taking measures to maintain control of it.
In the coalition agreement between Likud and Habayit Hayehudi, there was a bill to make the Jewishness of the State supreme.
Step 2: Uniting the nation and its leadership
Throughout the coalition talks, Bennett was the peacemaker between Lapid and Netanyahu, and has pledged to be a leader for all of Israel, not just the settlers. His party has also taken over key ministries that can affect the cost of living across Israel.
In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, as Barack Obama's plane was probably somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, a group of Palestinian activists sneaked onto an empty, stone-covered hill and erected three large tents, a dozen smaller ones, and a massive flagpole. Jammed between several large rocks, the pole shot about forty feet in the air. They hung a huge Palestinian flag, about 20 feet wide. A highway snaked through the valley below and, over the passing cars, the massive Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim. By the time I arrived at the Palestinian encampment in the evening, a large generator-powered light illuminated the huge flag, clearly visible from the highway below, and no doubt to the settlers across the way.
A huge Palestinian flag erected at the Palestinian "anti-settlement" of Bab al-Shams, with the lights of the West Bank Israeli settlement Ma'ale Adumim in the background. (Joseph Dana)
This was the second incarnation of Bab al-Shams, Arabic for Gate of the Sun, what one activist described as an "anti-settlement." This winter, the activists had set up the first such encampment on an adjacent hilltop. Attracting international media attention by using the same tactics as radical Israeli settlers, the first Bab al-Shams challenged Israel's plans to build up a swath of land known as E-1, between Ma'ale Adumim and Jerusalem, where experts said increased settlement construction could finally doom the two-state solution. The Israeli army evicted the first Bab al-Shams after just two days.
The new Bab al-Shams isn't just about Obama, but it's certainly pegged to his visit. "It coincides with Obama," said Abir Kopty, a veteran activist and one of the organizers at Bab al-Shams. "We've been wanting to do this since the last eviction of Bab al-Shams," she said. The activists all agreed that Obama's presence in the country—if not the policies he pursued—served as something of a protective blanket for the encampment. Only four hours after Bab al-Shams was re-erected, Israeli police and border patrol arrived with a notice declaring all of E-1 a military zone, meaning no one could come to or stay in the hills. But by evening, the camp was still there; Israeli border police allowed me and the journalists I was travelling with to walk past them unencumbered up the hill to the camp. The Israeli army even formally announced it wouldn't evict the Bab al-Shams until Obama left for Jordan on Friday. "Now they can't afford doing it," Kopty said, referring to the Israeli military. Obama "will leave on Friday. They will say, 'Good-bye, Obama. Let's go evict Bab al-Shams.'"
The activists there—numbering about 55 or 60 by nine in the evening yesterday—were harshly critical of Obama. Various banners posted around Bab al-Shams singled out Obama. "You can veto our rights, but you can't veto our dreams. Vote freedom, veto occupation," read one featuring Obama's face that was lashed to the flagpole. "Obama: You promised hope and change, you gave us apartheid and colonies," read another. Some Bab al-Shams residents said they admired Obama personally, but objected to his policies. "For me, I like him," said Ahmed Khatib, 36, of Bil'in, citing Obama's international background but being sure to speak only for himself. But he noted that "Obama and America give money to Israel and veto us at the U.N." Others were more abrupt: "He supports the terrorists of Israel," said Yousef Sherkawi of Bethlehem, one of the older Palestinians at the site.
There is widespread speculation about the purpose behind President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel. When it was first announced, I thought it was a catch-all visit designed to accomplish several objectives at once. I still think it has been primarily to reset relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, mostly because there’s been no indication that any major policy announcements or changes are coming.
It’s too early to say that the visit has been a success (since it isn’t over yet), but up to this point Obama has said all the right things in Israel, and Netanyahu has shown appreciation for it.
Sure signs of the comfort level the two have achieved (though Ron Kampeas is right that Obama is acting more at ease than Bibi) are the constant handshakes and touching, gentle mocking of each other’s appearance, consistent (even intensive) use of each other’s first name, and other seemingly minor things.
It’s certainly true, as David Horovitz points out, that there are still real differences between the two on Iran and the peace process. But in the world of diplomacy, personal relations between leaders matters. Yes, the American-Israeli relationship—like any inter-state relationship—is founded on multiple connections, but leaders who are more comfortable and familiar with each other are more likely to account for their counterparts’ anxieties, listen to their ideas, and coordinate joint concerns with them. Leaders with a more hostile or tense personal relationship will be less able or interested in doing any of these things.
In response to Maysoon Zayid’s provocative, heartfelt and moving account of how she would like to lead President Obama on a tour of Israel and the West Bank, I want to envisage the equally unimaginable tour that I’d like Obama to take of the Israeli settlements.
Sebastian Scheiner / AP Photo
In his first term, Obama made the settlements something of a cause celebre. But he picked the wrong battles: the expansion of Gilo and Ramat Shlomo. Gilo has two things going for it: (1) it lies well within the parameters of the "mutually agreed land-swaps" that are likely to occur as part of any tenable agreement; and (2) it's considered suburb of Jerusalem, rather than a settlement, by most of Israel’s population. The first point means that Obama’s staying quiet about Gilo wouldn’t have posed a danger for the prospects of a meaningful peace. The second point means that by raising his voice, Obama was going to alienate not just the Israeli right-wing, but even the Israeli center. Similarly, Ramat Shlomo is a Jewish suburb of Jerusalem that is highly likely to stay in Israeli hands. Its planned expansion doesn’t cut further into Palestinian territory. In fact, Ramat Shlomo is near the bottom of the list in terms of being a provocative settlement.
To the Palestinians Obama came off looking weak because he was ignored by Israel. To the Israelis he came off looking too harsh, and his popularity plummeted and continues to whimper.
If anyone is updating the White House's in-house guide to world etiquette, he might add that showing up in Israel during the Jews' annual Pesah-preparation madness—bollixing traffic, insisting on big important meetings—is just not done. Bibi Netanyahu, for all his faults, would know not to arrange a Washington visit on, say, December 23.
Yair Lapid, chairman of Yesh Atid party gives a speech during the celebration of their suggested 19 mandates on January 22, 2013 in Tel Aviv. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty)
Netanyahu, though, has good reason to ignore the bad manners. Barack Obama has completely distracted attention from the startlingly right-wing government that Bibi installed on Monday. The only person who must be happier about this distraction is Yair Lapid: The centrist electoral phenom of January is the neophyte negotiator who signed the give-away coalition deal of March. Many houses will be built in West Bank settlements, and many social services will be cut inside Israel, in honor of Lapid.
The one consolation for Israelis who voted for change is that the new government is structurally weak, and more vulnerable to protest and public anger. (Lapid, to be fair, deserves credit for this as well.) This is an opportunity, not a gift: It will be worth nothing if it is not seized.
After six weeks of coalition talks, Lapid agreed to become finance minister. This is one of the three most prestigious ministerial posts; the others are defense and foreign affairs. Equal prestige does not mean equal power. In Likud governments, the finance job is often a trap, assigned to someone whom the prime minister wants to destroy politically or to control. Ariel Sharon nearly finished Netanyahu by making him finance minister in 2003; Bibi took all the blame for policies that made the poor poorer. Last term Netanyahu gave the post to his lackey Yuval Steinitz, who was never heard from again.
"He's always talking about red lines."
--United States President Barack Obama jokingly refers to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu after being instructed to follow the red lines marked on the floor at Ben Gurion International Airport. (Ynet)
- Peace Now's surprise for Obama - Peace Now movement prepared a special spectacle for the US President and put it under the flight path of Obama's helicopter to Jerusalem. "We the people want peace!" (SEE PHOTO in Maariv/NRG Hebrew)
- IDF will not evacuate E1 outpost until end of Obama visit - According to the IDF, until the end of the presidential visit by Barack Obama there will be no evacuation of the Palestinian settlement set up in E1. (Ynet)
- Settler neighborhood inaugurated in the name of Jonathan Pollard - During celebratory ceremonies in honor of the US President, the settlement of Karmei Tzur in Gush Etzion held a ceremony declaring the name of the new caravan neighborhood, 'Tzur Yehonatan' in honor of Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard. (NRG Hebrew)
- Polite refusal - In his meeting with US President Obama, President Peres raised the issue of releasing spy Jonathan Pollard from jail and gave him a petition with 200,000 Israeli signatures. The US President listened, expressed sympathy, but ruled: it won't happen soon. (Yedioth, p. 16)
- Obama's plant placed in quarantine - Agriculture Ministry says seedling Obama brought with him to plant in Peres' courtyard must be checked for possible pests; likely to be returned to President's Residence. (Ynet)
- Ehud Barak: "Israel should launch a daring peace initiative vis-à-vis the Palestinians" - One day after leaving office and on the day that Obama arrives in Israel, the former defense minister publishes an Op-Ed in Wall Street Journal saying, "The status quo leads to a binational state." (Haaretz Hebrew and Wall Street Journal Op-Ed.)
- Facing the (Passover) music at Yad Vashem - Obama to receive musical notes to original Passover melody composed by former chief cantor of Amsterdam, who was killed in Holocaust. (Haaretz+)
For the full News from Israel.
Today, while President Barack Obama was landing in Tel Aviv, I was stopped at the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Although this is a notoriously difficult checkpoint, security was tightened for the arrival of the American president.
While I was waiting to hear whether or not I would be able to travel to Jerusalem, President Obama stepped off of Air Force One and greeted the masses with a simple “Shalom.” The crowd went wild.
US President Barack Obama is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an official welcoming ceremony on his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport on March, 20, 2013 near Tel Aviv, Israel. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)
Meanwhile, I replied “todah”—thank you in Hebrew—to the two young Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers who graciously informed me that I needed to wait five minutes before the police came to verify my identity and see if I could pass from Ramallah to Jerusalem. When I said, “Shalom, Officer” he seemed less than impressed. He wanted to know if I spoke Arabic, and if I had any Palestinian blood—he insisted that I did.
During that time, President Obama gave a speech to the political leaders, religious leaders, military leaders and press who assembled for his arrival. He did not mention Palestine once.
I didn’t mention Palestine either. In my experience, it is easier to get around the Israeli authorities if you don’t mention Palestine. It seems like this might be the case in Barack Obama’s experience, too.
Ali Gharib on how badly John Kerry's efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks are going.