President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel hasn’t been perfect. He began with a gratuitous dig at his political opposition back home–a ritual of Obama’s foreign trips, as if he alone is exempt from the rule that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” He snubbed the newly elected Israeli Knesset to speak to a group of students Thursday in Jerusalem. Those missteps aside, President Obama’s visit to Israel has been a success, and a step forward.
Obama began with a speech at Ben Gurion Airport, declaring in Hebrew: “Tov lihiyot shuv ba’aretz”–“It’s good to be back in The Land”–referring to the country, as Israelis do, with the definite article. Unlike previous addresses, Obama’s speech upon arrival stressed the Biblical and historic connection of the Jewish people with Israel, and traced the “unbreakable bond” between the U.S. and Israel to their shared history and values.
From there, Obama inspected an Iron Dome battery, the short-range missile defense system developed by Israel and partly funded by the U.S. that destroys Hamas rockets in mid-flight before they can reach their (predominantly civilian) targets. He lined up for a photo with a group of Israel Defense Forces soldiers who operate the batteries, telling them that they were “doing an amazing job.”
Aside from a temporary snag when the presidential limousine was filled with the wrong fuel and had to be replaced, the rest of Obama’s trip went without a hitch. He visited Israeli President Shimon Peres, who stressed the danger of Iranian-back Hezbollah, and held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There is an absence of trust between the two on issues such as Iran and Israeli settlements, but the two leaders did their best not to show it.
The apparent détente between Obama and Netanyahu has more to do with domestic politics than international politics. Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense signaled that the president remains committed to negotiation with Iran, a path that Netanyahu has criticized openly. Hagel, who will travel to Israel himself next month, has adopted anti-Israel view that were not easily erased by his confirmation hearing.
It may be that Netanyahu has decided the Obama administration is unreliable on Iran, and that Israel will have to be prepared to face the danger alone. That may even be the Obama administration’s quiet preference, too. With lowered expectations comes lower tension. In addition, both leaders find themselves in very similar political positions, having both been re-elected by smaller margins and less room to maneuver at home. Both leaders therefore have a strong interest in portraying the visit as a great success.
Not so the Palestinians, who are fuming at the display of warmth in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In Bethlehem, protests and vandalism greeted Obama’s impending visit Thursday. Israeli Arab politician Ahmad Tibi, who serves in the Knesset and echoes Palestinian grievances, attacked Obama’s speech as a “Zionist” speech, describing it as one-sided.
Tibi predicted that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would ask Obama to pressure Israel to enact a freeze on settlement construction as a condition for returning to peace negotiations. A similar demand from Obama during his first term caused talks to grind to a halt. The success of Obama’s trip overall may depend on what he says in Ramallah, but regardless, he has already hit most of the right notes in Israel thus far.