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Too soon to tell

Guest post by Eyal

Israel’s political landscape over the past few weeks has been characterized by two major developments: President Barack Obama’s visit and speech and the return of Harry’s Place after almost a week of absence.

Naturally, the latter has been greeted with mass rallies, dancing in the streets, and a general consensus that it is a major development for the general well-being of mankind. As for the former, however, while well-received overall, there is far more ambivalence as to where it will lead next.

Reactions to the speech have been a bit like a Baskin Robins 31 flavors ice-cream. Everybody took from it what they found convenient: the right focused on the compliments and the left focused on Obama’s peace message. For all its appreciation and seemingly genuine concern for Israel, Obama’s speech hasn’t challenged Israel’s established political camps to budge from their current positions.

Obama’s visit had two distinct parts to it: the “feel-good” part, and the “negotiations” part. The majority of the visit was all about schmoozing, designed to win the hearts and minds of the Israeli people. Unlike the previous two US Presidents, Clinton and Bush, who were highly popular in the Israeli public, Obama was regarded with suspicion bordering on outright hostility. This mistrust was driven both by Obama’s own mistakes, such as visiting Arab countries but not Israel during his first term, the public feuds with Netanyahu, and his basic personality. Obama is frequently regarded as a cold fish and doesn’t enjoy a particularly close relationship with any foreign or domestic leader.

To overcome this alienation, Obama’s trip was filled with photogenic and confidence-inspiring moments – the photo-op at the Iron Dome batteries, the visit to the Israel National Museum, the speech to the students – designed to break the wall of suspicion of the last four years. The visit – at least superficially – appears to mark a shift; first heart and minds, then new initiatives.

To a large extent, this seems to have worked. Polls conducted in Israel after Obama’s visit show a slight increase in the number of people who think Obama is pro-Israel and a significant decrease in the number of people in Israel who consider Obama anti-Israeli. So even if there was no major breakthrough, at least there was a calming of tensions.

While the visit was heavy on the carrot, it also contained something of the stick. And even though Obama’s speech was very blunt in reiterating his position on Middle-East peace, there was actually very little new about it. Palestinian self-determination and opposition to settlements has more-or-less been the US position since 1967. And the speech contained no new message – no Clintonesque peace plan, Bush roadmap, or even Netanyahu “two-state” declaration. For all its hype, it’s doubtful that this speech that will be discussed a year from now. The importance of the speech, therefore, isn’t in what was actually said, but rather as a springboard. The question is what for.

A first sign of movement has been Obama’s brokering an apology from Israel to Turkey over the events of the Mavi Marmara flotilla, which was acceptable to both sides. And while this is a welcome development in itself and widely accepted in Israel, it has been cooking for almost three years, and is part of a wider array of interests for both countries and their relations to their neighbors.

Currently it isn’t clear whether and what kind of followup there will be to Obama’s visit. Will there be a grand new peace initiative? Will Obama try to leverage the newfound love (or at least tolerance) of the Israeli public to convince it to make concessions for a final settlement? Or did he, as Tom Friedman speculated, come to Israel as a tourist and give up on making any substantial outside impact? The answer to these questions will mark the true “legacy” of Obama’s message to the Israeli people.

To paraphrase what Zhou Enlai reputedly said about the significance of the French Revolution – it’s too soon to tell.