President Barack Obama’s Wednesday-to-Friday visit to Israel was a meticulously choreographed exercise in rehabilitation and inspiration.
On the first, he seems to have succeeded: Not particularly well-liked, and somewhat mistrusted by many Israelis before he arrived, he “won us over,” Yedioth Ahronoth was declaring by Thursday morning. “We’re a pushover,” Channel 2’s diplomatic correspondent Udi Segal echoed later that day. Twenty-four hours of presidential radiance, Segal sighed with a mixture of dismay and admiration, and Israel was captivated.
On the second, time will tell. The landmark address of his visit, to a packed Jerusalem International Conference Center, was ultimately designed to move Israelis politically. Though never so blatant as to make this explicit, the address was a direct challenge to the bleak vision and assessments of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — the Israeli leader he opted not to meet as recently as last September in the US; “my friend Bibi,” as Obama has now taken to calling him. It was a speech, indeed, inspired in good part by Yitzhak Rabin, as the president acknowledged Friday to Rabin’s family at the assassinated prime minister’s grave on Mount Herzl.
Where Netanyahu tells his people of dire threats and profound challenges, from Iran, Syria, Palestinian rejectionists and the rest of a hostile region, Obama assured Israel that, with America at its side, it could overcome those dangers, and dared us to dream of a better Israel, beloved internationally, beyond moral reproach, prosperous and tranquil. And why not sign up for the possibility of that miraculous transformation, and push your leaders to achieve it, he implored young Israelis? Isn’t this the country where, as he recalled our first prime minister David Ben-Gurion declaring, “in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles”?
Plainly, in a certain reversal of the political hierarchy, Obama was the warm-up act for his new secretary of state, John Kerry. The president, it turns out, ignored his mother’s advice. He didn’t just listen. He talked. But it is Kerry who will now attempt to act — to again try to chivvy Israelis and Palestinians back to the peace table, with no preconditions this time, and try to help Israelis break down wider regional hostility. Back in Washington, Obama will doubtless continue to radiate empathy, solidarity, support, encouragement — and, when deemed necessary, utilize some political pressure too. Perhaps he will henceforth also battle more tenaciously to change Arab perceptions, and influence Arab actions for the better, where Israel is concerned. This, too, would seem to be a prerequisite for the transformation he seeks to inspire.
Will Netanyahu — so warmly hugged at the airport farewell, after all that extra one-on-one time earlier in the day — embrace the Obama vision, fight it, be swept aside by it, prevail over it? Will Arab intransigence shatter it? Can Israelis, should Israelis, attempt to break themselves clear of the fears, wariness and skepticism that were raised by the horrors of the second intifada, and that are continually reinforced by the abiding viciousness of Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and other enemies throughout the region? We are about to find out.
In the meantime, here are some of the key words and pictures from a remarkable 52-hour bid, by the leader of the free world, to prod our tiny, embattled, mighty, creative, energetic and divided Israel toward his vision of our future.
Wednesday, March 20
The airport welcome
From Obama’s speech: Why does the United States stand so strongly, so firmly with the State of Israel?… We stand together because we share a common story — patriots determined “to be a free people in our land,” pioneers who forged a nation, heroes who sacrificed to preserve our freedom, and immigrants from every corner of the world who renew constantly our diverse societies. We stand together because we are democracies. For as noisy and messy as it may be, we know that democracy is the greatest form of government ever devised by man…
We stand together because it makes us more prosperous. Our trade and investment create jobs for both our peoples. Our partnerships in science and medicine and health bring us closer to new cures, harness new energy and have helped transform us into high-tech hubs of our global economy. We stand together because we share a commitment to helping our fellow human beings around the world. When the earth shakes and the floods come, our doctors and rescuers reach out to help. When people are suffering, from Africa to Asia, we partner to fight disease and overcome hunger. And we stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land. For even as we are clear-eyed about the difficulty, we will never lose sight of the vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors.
President to president
Talks with Netanyahu
Netanyahu: Mr. President, you have made it clear that you are determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. I appreciate your forthright position on this point. I also appreciate that you have noted — that you have acted to thwart the threat both through determined diplomacy and strong sanctions that are getting stronger yet. Notwithstanding our joint efforts and your great success in mobilizing the international community, diplomacy and sanctions so far have not stopped Iran’s nuclear program. And as you know, my view is that in order to stop Iran’s nuclear programs peacefully, diplomacy and sanctions must be augmented by a clear and credible threat of military action. In this regard, Mr. President, I want to thank you once again for always making clear that Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat… You appreciate that Israel can never cede the right to defend ourselves to others, even to the greatest of our friends. And Israel has no better friend than the United States of America.
Obama: We agree that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to the region, a threat to the world, and potentially an existential threat to Israel. And we agree on our goal. We do not have a policy of containment when it comes to a nuclear Iran. Our policy is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. We prefer to resolve this diplomatically, and there’s still time to do so. Iran’s leaders must understand, however, that they have to meet their international obligations. And, meanwhile, the international community will continue to increase the pressure on the Iranian government. The United States will continue to consult closely with Israel on next steps. And I will repeat: All options are on the table. We will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from getting the world’s worst weapons.
Thursday, March 21
The Israel Museum
Meeting Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah
From Obama’s remarks at joint press conference with Abbas: The Palestinian people deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it. Palestinians deserve to move and travel freely, and to feel secure in their communities. Like people everywhere, Palestinians deserve a future of hope — that their rights will be respected, that tomorrow will be better than today and that they can give their children a life of dignity and opportunity. Put simply, Palestinians deserve a state of their own.
The speech to the people of Israel
From Obama’s address: Four years ago, I stood in Cairo in front of an audience of young people. Politically, religiously, they must seem a world away. But the things they want – they’re not so different from you. The ability to make their own decisions; to get an education and a good job; to worship God in their own way; to get married and have a family. The same is true of the young Palestinians that I met in Ramallah this morning, and of young Palestinians who yearn for a better life in Gaza.
That is where peace begins – not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people; not just in a carefully designed process, but in the daily connections that take place among those who live together in this land, and in this sacred city of Jerusalem. Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see…
Your voices must be louder than the extremists who would drown them out. Your hopes must light the way forward. Look to a future in which Jews, Muslims and Christians can all live in peace and greater prosperity in this Holy Land. Look to the future that you want for your own children – a future in which a Jewish, democratic state is protected and accepted, for this time and for all time.
There will be many voices that say this change is not possible. But remember this: Israel is the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world. Israel has the wisdom to see the world as it is, but also the courage to see the world as it should be. Ben Gurion once said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” Sometimes, the greatest miracle is recognizing that the world can change. After all, that is a lesson that the world learned from the Jewish people.
The state dinner
Friday, March 22
Honoring Herzl and Rabin
From Matti Friedman’s report: There were hugs, handshakes and laughter with Rabin’s children and grandchildren. Obama spoke to the bereaved about Rabin’s legacy, and the “strength” that is required to push for peace. He said he derived much of the inspiration for his speech yesterday from Rabin, and called him “a great man.”
Dalia Rabin Philosoph, Rabin’s daughter and a former Knesset member, said later that, for her, the most memorable moment was when she and her family were standing in line and saw the US president approaching them… “It was almost a seminal moment for me.”
Touring Yad Vashem
Protests ahead of the private presidential visit to Bethlehem
The airport farewell, with a Turkish kicker
The Prime Minister’s Office issues a statement: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke today with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two men agreed to restore normalization between Israel and Turkey, including the dispatch of ambassadors and the cancellation of legal steps against IDF soldiers. Prime Minister Netanyahu told Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan that he had good talks with US President Barack Obama on the issue of regional cooperation and the importance of Israeli-Turkish relations. The Prime Minister expressed regret over the deterioration in bilateral relations and noted his commitment to working out the disagreements in order to advance peace and regional stability…
The Prime Minister made it clear that the tragic results regarding the Mavi Marmara were unintentional and that Israel expresses regret over injuries and loss of life. In light of the Israeli investigation into the incident, which pointed out several operational errors, Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized to the Turkish people for any errors that could have led to loss of life and agreed to complete the agreement on compensation.
Prime Minister Netanyahu also noted that Israel has already lifted several restrictions on the movement of civilians and goods to all of the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, and added that this will continue as long as the quiet is maintained. The two leaders agreed to continue to work on improving the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories.