Symbols, substance in the Mideast

One of the sore spots in the foreign policy of U.S. President Barack Obama has been his relationship with Israel. The special relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv has been one of the cornerstones of U.S. diplomacy, a lodestar for U.S. presidents since the founding of the state of Israel.

The strength of that relationship reflects Israel’s status as the first and strongest democracy in the Middle East, the alliance with the U.S. and, to the consternation of some, the power of the Israeli lobby in Washington.

Since taking office, Mr. Obama has been accused of ignoring Israel and showing favoritism toward the Palestinians. In one of his first overseas trips as president, he went to Egypt to deliver a speech that aimed to re-establish the U.S. relationship with the Arab and Islamic world.

Ever since, critics have charged that Mr. Obama is less than committed to the defense of Israel, pointing to his criticism of Israeli settlements and statements that endorsed returning to borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israel war. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made common cause with those critics to increase his leverage in negotiations with Mr. Obama. The result has been considerable tension between the two men.

In truth, Mr. Obama’s commitment to the defense of Israel has not wavered. His overtures to the Islamic world reflected a desire to undo the damage done by the Bush administration’s global war on terror. He kept a distance from the Middle East peace process — although he created a special envoy to the negotiations — because neither Israelis nor Palestinians were ready to take hard steps needed for a durable peace.

Cognizant that the region has long been a graveyard of U.S. diplomats’ dreams, Mr. Obama decided to preserve his diplomatic capital until circumstances indicated that there was a real chance of success.

That moment is not yet here. But dynamics in the region, along with his re-election, demanded that he refocus on the Middle East, and a visit was overdue. The trip had several objectives. Mr. Obama had to win the confidence of the Israeli people, and assure them — and others — of the strength of their relationship with the U.S. At the same time, he had to make the case for the Palestinians without suggesting that there is a zero-sum relationship between the two.

He needed to remind all countries of the region that the U.S. remains a credible and potent force. And, related to that, he had to remind Iran that it remains the focus of concern and that Tehran has not been able to divide the coalition of forces that is determined to stop its nuclear ambitions.

By almost all accounts, he succeeded. From the moment he landed in Israel, Mr. Obama told Israelis they are not alone and that their alliance with the U.S. remains strong. In a speech in Jerusalem on March 21, he planted himself firmly on the side of the Israeli people, and then made an impassioned plea to see the world from a Palestinian perspective. It was a masterful performance, the high point of the trip, and one that won over his audience.

Polls showed that he turned his image around among Israelis, convincing them that he was more pro-Israeli than pro-Palestinian.

And while many Palestinians faulted him for noting that the state of Israel is permanent, he still made a powerful case for Palestinian statehood and the need to restart the peace process. A visit to the West Bank shored up the position of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas relative to that of Hamas, his rival that controls the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Obama produced tangible results at the end of his visit. He brokered a reconciliation between Israel and Turkey. The two countries had been close, but a May 2010 Israeli commando raid on a Turkish ship taking relief supplies to Palestinians that resulted in the deaths of nine activists drove a wedge between them.

At the U.S. president’s urging, Mr. Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and apologized for the deaths and promised to reach an agreement on compensation to their families. The two countries also agreed to restore normal relations. The move is especially important given the situation in Syria and the potential for wider instability.

It is vitally important that Tel Aviv and Ankara be communicating and able to work together if things deteriorate.

A final stop in Jordan, a long time U.S. supporter, demonstrated commitment to old friends in the Arab world, as well as support for peaceful democratization. Mr. Obama’s promise to provide $200 million to ease the plight of the 400,000 refugees from the violence in Syria is another important sign of U.S. determination to stay involved and relevant to the region.

Some will note that Mr. Obama’s success is the product of low expectations. True, his trip was initially portrayed as something of a tourist visit, more symbol than substance, but his efforts have signaled U.S. commitment and focus. He has again shown the ability to reach out to both sides in a conflict while also demonstrating U.S. resolve.

The question now is whether Mr. Obama will follow up and commit the resources — both personnel and time — to push for progress.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is set to return to both Israel and Palestine to press for the resumption of peace talks. Deep engagement by Mr. Kerry will be one sign that Mr. Obama is now committed to substance rather than symbolism when approaching this intractable problem.