Obama’s charm offensive: Change we can believe in?

The president and the prime minister determinedly came across as friends and partners on Wednesday. Some of their differences may have narrowed, but let’s not get carried away

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a welcoming ceremony for the president at Ben Gurion Airport, March 20, 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a welcoming ceremony for the president at Ben Gurion Airport, March 20, 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Remember May 2011, when Benjamin Netanyahu humiliated Barack Obama by delivering what The Wall Street Journal called a “rare public rebuke” of the president, telling him, in the Oval Office, in what amounted to a public lecture, that Israel cannot withdraw to the 1967 lines? Remember when, later that year, Obama was overheard saying to Nicolas Sarkozy that the French president might be fed up with the Israeli leader, “but I have to deal with him even more often than you”? Or remember, last September, when Netanyahu came to America to speak to the UN but Obama couldn’t find the time to meet him?

Remember any of that? No? Me neither.

After day one of Obama’s first presidential visit to Jerusalem, any previous disagreements between him and the Israeli premier seemed so distant, from so different an era, it was almost as though they had never existed.

If Obama’s goal was to launch a charm offensive rather than to kick start the peace process, or kick anything else, he was hitting all the right notes with his good friend “Bibi.” And Netanyahu was giving him the warm “Barack” treatment straight back. Settlement freeze? Never heard of it. Arguments over Iran? Please, our positions could not be closer.

Quarreling in public was sooo yesterday. Today, we have two leaders who were recently reelected and would have us believe they’ve realized they have little choice but to get along for the next few years. Might as well make nice and try to get things done amicably.

Obama got right into it. “Tov lihiyot shuv ba’aretz” — it’s good to be back in Israel, he said, right at the beginning of his first speech, minutes after he emerged from Air Force One. He then hurried to remedy the glaring omission from his 2009 Cairo speech, in which he seemed to imply that Israel’s right to exist is based on the Holocaust, as opposed to the then-unmentioned Jewish nation’s ancient historic sovereign connection to the Land of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US President Barack Obama at the welcoming ceremony in honor of the president's visit. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US President Barack Obama at the welcoming ceremony in honor of the president’s visit. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

“More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here,” Obama reminded us and himself, (though unfortunately probably not much of the Arab world, which doesn’t tend to tune in to Ben-Gurion Airport welcome ceremonies). “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.”

Such words even pleased right-wing Jewish Home leader and Economics Minister Naftali Bennett: “It’s an important speech that recognizes the deep historical connection between the people of Israel and the Land of Israel,” he declared soon after.

After affirming the Jewish nation’s indigenousness to the region and calling Israel a “Jewish State,” Obama waxed biblical: “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. And 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.”

In this first speech, what’s more, Obama did not so much as utter the words “Palestine” or “Palestinians,” merely speaking of “your neighbors.”

Later, at the President’s Residence, Obama termed Jerusalem “the Eternal City” — a nice epithet, although he unsurprisingly stopped short of calling it Israel’s capital. He did, though, throw in an anecdote from the Talmud, about a man who plants trees for his children.

Subsequent photo-ops with children — and there were plenty of them at the President’s Residence — are the easy part of trips like this. The difficult part is where two world leaders, who have very different political convictions, grapple with the real issues of life-and-death import to their nations.

But throughout the day, even after hours of such talks, the president and the prime minister sounded like best friends, joking about Obama’s fake mustache and Netanyahu seeing red lines everywhere. When Obama quipped that Netanyahu’s “very good looking” sons clearly got their looks from their mother, Netanyahu instantly responded: “Well, I could say the same of your daughters.” What a double act.

There were also somber personal moments, such as when Obama quoted Netanyahu’s fallen brother Yoni. They only underlined the effort to show how much relations had improved. Netanyahu later said he was very moved by the gesture.

Heck, they even looked like best friends, easy in each other’s company, especially when the prime minister followed the president’s lead and they took off their suit jackets as they strode around Ben-Gurion Airport.

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu go informal at Ben Gurion Airport, Wednesday (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu go informal at Ben-Gurion Airport, Wednesday (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

“Thank you for the investment you have made in our relationship, and in strengthening the friendship and alliance between our two countries. It is deeply, deeply, appreciated,” Netanyahu told the president at a joint press conference in the evening, cementing the tone of partnership.

It’s not yet clear what exactly was resolved, or not, regarding steps toward Palestinian statehood and steps to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive during the five-hour talks in the Prime Minister’s Residence. It’s more than possible that the BFF display simply means the two have grown up and learned to grin and bear their differences.

But when they did discuss matters of substance, there were signs of a narrowing of gaps.

“Israel remains fully committed to peace and to the solution of two states for two peoples,” Netanyahu said, giving Obama an explicit endorsement of Palestinian statehood that will rankle with many members of his own new coalition.

And the president “very much welcomed Bibi’s words.” He also admitted that he could have been “more deft” during his first term in trying to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It takes a confluence of both good diplomatic work but also timing, serendipity, things falling into place at the right time, the right players feeling that this is the moment to seize it.”

“There have probably been times where when I’ve made statements about what I think needs to happen. The way it gets filtered through our press, it may be interpreted in ways that get Israelis nervous,” Obama added.

Does that mean he’s not going to try to twist Israeli arms? Let’s not get carried away. But for now, he said, he’s following his mom’s advice — to listen before he talks.

On Iran, too, the rhetoric suggested a greater coordination.

“I’m absolutely convinced that the president is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said. But don’t you and the president have different timetables, reporters asked? His response sought to explain “a misunderstanding.”

Manufacturing a nuclear weapon would indeed take about a year, he said, echoing Obama’s stated timeline. The red line he drew at the United Nations in the fall hasn’t been crossed yet, he added. His concern is over Iran completing the enrichment stage so that it can more speedily break out to the bomb.

“But we do have a common assessment on these schedules, on intelligence,” Netanyahu asserted. “We share that intelligence and we don’t have any argument about it. I think it’s important to state that clearly.”

Obama concurred. “There’s not a lot of daylight between our country’s assessments in terms of where Iran is right now,” he said. The Israeli prime minister “is absolutely correct” in saying that each country “has to make its own decision 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 make a decision about his country’s security and defer that to any other country.”

So we’re all on the same page then? Again, let’s not go too far. Obama is still talking up diplomacy, and Netanyahu is still praising the president for acknowledging Israel’s right to protect itself as it deems necessary. That sounds like more than a little daylight.

Concluding the press conference, Netanyahu expressed the hope that all Israelis “should get to know President Obama the way I’ve gotten to know him.”

Such niceties are expected to continue on Thursday morning, when Obama will marvel at ancient bibles and super-modern nanotechnology. The first challenge to the new friendship will come when the president returns from his talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the afternoon, and turns to the Israeli people with a much-anticipated speech about the prospects for peace in this region.

How much will the vision he sets out for Israel’s future subtly or overtly contradict Netanyahu’s? That’ll be one pointer to the depth of the ostensible new Obama-Netanyahu alliance. Another will be after Obama gets back home, internalizes what he’s been listening to, and starts talking… and acting.

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