AMMAN – President Barack Obama’s mission of remedial diplomacy to Israel and the Palestinian territories was cast early on as one of modest ambition, a prolonged air-clearing between a U.S. leader and the region’s public, disillusioned by his once-ambitious approach to the Middle East.
But over the four-day visit, Obama’s broader goal emerged as one both more basic and, perhaps, essential than initially portrayed: to rescue the decades-old idea that Israelis and Palestinians — after years of military occupation, war, terrorist attacks and settlement construction — can live together in side-by-side states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
“The question is whether there can be real peace here,” said Tzachi Shickman, a Hebrew University student who attended Obama’s speech Thursday at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. “A Palestinian state could bring more attacks on us.”
Shickman’s ambivalence captures in microcosm the mix of hope and skepticism left behind by Obama’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, his first as president. The trip concluded Saturday in Jordan, where he visited the ancient rose-colored city of Petra, carved into the cliff sides of the country’s south.
Obama’s words have often stirred even skeptical foreign audiences, as they did during his June 2009 speech in Cairo.
That address, though, still sits at the center of his uneasy relationship with Israel, which he used this trip to try to repair. He pledged new funding for Israeli antimissile systems, reiterated his promise to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and told Jews in a stilted if heartfelt Hebrew, “You are not alone.”
In a series of symbolic visits, Obama also celebrated the ancient Jewish connection to the land that now comprises its modern state. The acknowledgment served as a precursor to his unequivocal defense of Palestinian rights to dignity, freedom and statehood — words that brought a mostly young Israeli audience to its feet.
Obama must now transform the lingering doubts of students such as Shickman into a publicly supported Israeli-Palestinian peace process, one that will require both sides to sacrifice historically contested land and legal claims.
“No single step is going to erase years of history and propaganda,” Obama noted. “But progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin, while sidelining extremists who thrive on conflict and thrive on division. It will make a difference.”
A deeply suspicious Israeli public, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared to receive Obama warmly throughout much of his visit, a tribute to his skills in public diplomacy, if not always in the art of negotiation.
But Obama’s overall message in the Mideast reflected a shift in his thinking about the best way to pursue a final resolution to the issues of borders, Palestinian refugee claims and the division of Jerusalem. His first effort, initially more focussed on pressuring Israel, ended unsuccessfully, even becoming a 2012 campaign issue.
As he begins his second term, Obama has adopted an approach that one school of past U.S. diplomats who have managed this agonizing portfolio have long advocated. The policy calls for “hugging” Jewish Israelis through acknowledgment of their ancient history, threatened security and thriving democracy, before demanding politically costly sacrifices from its leaders.
The tack was endorsed during Obama’s first term by Dennis Ross, then his chief Middle East adviser on the National Security Council staff. But his advocacy placed him at odds with the president’s former Middle East peace envoy, former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, who asked first for Israeli concessions as he implored Arab nations to demonstrate support for the Jewish state.
Obama has made clear that Secretary of State John Kerry, who accompanied the president on each stop of the trip, will take up the agenda. Kerry met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday afternoon before returning to Jerusalem in the evening to meet Netanyahu.
Speaking of the Obama-Netanyahu meetings last week, a senior Israeli official said the prime minister stressed “the importance of the security component” in any future peace talks.
In Jerusalem, Obama publicly endorsed Israel’s right to defend itself and pledged continuing U.S. financial support for the antimissile Iron Dome system that knocked down hundreds of Gaza-fired rockets last November.
“There is no question that Israel has faced Palestinian factions who turned to terror, leaders who missed historic opportunities,” Obama said. “But the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice, must also be recognized.”
For Palestinians, whom Obama never addressed in a large public gathering, the president’s message was harder to support given the departure it marked from his early first-term approach.
In seeking to repair U.S. relations with Muslims during his first term, Obama backed Abbas’ demand that Israel stop settlement construction on land occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war before new talks could begin. Palestinians view those areas — including east Jerusalem and the West Bank — as elements of their future state. The onus, Obama made clear during his visit last week to the West Bank city of Ramallah, is now largely on the Palestinians to drop that condition and return to the table.
“One of the challenges I know has been continued settlement activity,” Obama said in his appearance with Abbas, adding that settlement building was not “constructive” or “appropriate.”
The approach, which will likely guide Kerry’s, signals another tactical change in the way Obama regards the most efficient route to a peace agreement. The president, along with Kerry, will push both parties toward a single comprehensive deal, rather than spend time haggling over prenegotiation conditions such as a settlement freeze.
Obama was widely criticized, even by some of his senior advisers, for spending too much time early in his administration pressuring Israel to freeze settlement construction to coax Palestinians to the peace table. The months-long bickering cost Obama time and political capital on the issue.
The push also infuriated Netanyahu, who eventually adopted a 10-month freeze on new construction. But it exempted east Jerusalem and contained loopholes that allowed much building in the large settlement blocs to continue.
Abbas finally joined the direct talks with only a month to go in the moratorium, which he considered a political ploy. Those 2010 negotiations — the first in nearly two years at the time — collapsed within weeks when Netanyahu declined to renew the building freeze.
“In the past, you have a process where you’re discussing a lot of interim measures or smaller steps without addressing the fundamental issues,” said a senior Obama administration official.
“The president’s view is we do need to get this into direct negotiations,” the official continued, “but those negotiations have to be in an atmosphere of trust and confidence, and they have to be about the core issues.”
During the stop in Ramallah, a group of young women danced to traditional Palestinian music for the U.S. delegation. Obama said the aspirations of the women, whom he spoke with briefly after the event, reminded him of his daughters.
The story, which he recounted in both Israel and Jordan, suggested the appeal to younger generations that Obama often adopts in pitching his political program at home. As he implored Thursday, “political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks.”
“He really inspired us to do something and go over the heads of the politicians,” said Arbel Freiman, 26, a computer science student at Tel Aviv University. “It was good he talked to the people. People think they don’t have the power to bring change.”
But many Israelis and Palestinians, even those inspired by Obama’s community-organizer call for public action, question the extent of their influence over a divided Palestinian leadership and a new Israeli government focused most intently on the social issues that defined the last election.
“Will it work? Who knows?” wrote Shalom Yerushalmi, a political analyst for the Maariv newspaper, noting that no one predicted the wave of grassroots economic protests that swept Israel two years ago. “Maybe political protest will yet flood the streets, and then President Obama would be able to claim the copyright.”