Had President Obama gone to the Middle East last week to restart direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, his mission would have to be labeled a failure.
But that’s not why he went.
Obama went to mend fences with the United States’ most important ally in the region — to reiterate this country’s unwavering support for Israel, to communicate that support in powerful terms to Israel’s enemies (particularly Iran) and to, as one JTA reporter wrote, “charm the pants off the Israeli people.”
He accomplished all that, and more: Few people anticipated the phone call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made to the Turkish PM, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the final day of Obama’s visit, apologizing for “operational mistakes” in Israel’s 2010 boarding of the Mavi Mamara flotilla ship bound for Gaza, which resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish nationals. Obama, who was present for the phone call, apparently brokered that development.
Israel and Turkey had previously been unable to agree on the wording of an apology, but now that it has happened, the two countries could normalize their relations, which is critical since the Syrian civil war threatens to spill over the borders of both countries.
It was the highlight to a trip during which Obama said and did all the right things:
• He made clear during his visit to Yad Vashem that “the State of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, but with the survival of a strong Jewish State of Israel, such a Holocaust will never happen again.”
• And he spoke to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran when he said in a speech at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, “Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist, they might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above because Israel’s not going anywhere.”
• He verbally disarmed a heckler at a speech to Israeli university students in Jerusalem, which earned him a standing ovation.
Did it work? Clearly, the president considers peace with the Palestinians in the best interests of Israel’s security, and settlement construction to be counterproductive to those interests. He made those points in no uncertain terms on this trip, which won’t endear him to many Israelis and American Jews.
But we find the words of Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party, and the most conservative member of Netanyahu’s new government, most telling.
“Obama’s words certainly came out of concern for Israel and true friendship,” he wrote on Facebook.
It doesn’t mean Bennett will suddenly support a two-state solution, which he doesn’t. (He also wrote in the same post “A Palestinian state isn’t the right way. The time has come for new and creative outlooks.”) Still, if a conservative Cabinet member can speak warmly of the president, then that, too, is progress.
Obama didn’t come to Israel to immediately restart peace talks; that’s a bridge too far — for now. But he did come to re-establish trust, not only with Israel, but also with the Palestinians and Jordan, whom he also visited. How successful he was remains to be seen.
Mission accomplished? Well, it was a good start.