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Obama's Big Israel Breakthrough

Thursday's speech may have singlehandedly repaired a rocky relationship

Uriel Sinal/Getty Images News

Barack Obama came to Jerusalem to win over the Israeli people, and with a single speech he did. It happened when he addressed an audience of several thousand young people in Jerusalem and delivered what may have been the most passionate Zionist speech ever given by an American president.

Of course, his embrace had an explicit message for Israelis: Don't give up on the dream of peace and don't forget that the Palestinians deserve a state just as you do. But as the repeated ovations from the politically and culturally diverse audience revealed, these are messages that Israelis can hear when couched in affection and solidarity. After four years of missed signals, Obama finally realized that Israelis respond far more to love than to pressure.

Until that speech it was easy to be cynical about the visit. Everyone seemed to be trying too hard. "An Unbreakable Friendship," proclaimed the government posters on the streets, sounding more anxious than celebratory. And Obama's affirmation of Israel's three thousand year history, delivered moments after he stepped off the plane, was a transparent attempt to get it right.

By contrast, his speech to the students was no string of sound bites but a sustained argument for Israel—its legitimacy, its faith, its fears. Obama acknowledged—no, he deeply affirmed—the well-earned right of Israelis to be skeptical of appeals to peace. You held out your hand in friendship and made a credible offer for peace and that was rejected, he told us. You withdrew from Gaza and got missiles in return. And when you look around the region, you see instability and wonder how peace can possibly come.  

One could sense the gratitude—the relief—in the audience: Finally, an acknowledgment of the Israeli narrative for the absence of peace.  

And when Obama urged us to nevertheless not despair of peace, he was appropriately cautious. No, there were no guarantees that peace will happen even if we resume negotiations, but we need to keep trying.  

Yes we can—maybe.

Obama's goal in coming to Israel was to establish a relationship of trust with the Israeli people—to enlist our support for a renewed peace process with the Palestinians. But for Israelis, the least credible part of his talk was when he tried to convince us that Mahmoud Abbas is ready to make peace—or that the Arab Spring has created an opening for reconciliation with the Middle East. That's hardly the reality we see emerging around us. There was something deeply unsettling, almost cruel, in trying to reawaken our suppressed hopes for normalcy—for a new Middle East, in the language of the Oslo peace process.  

In one sense Obama did succeed. Next time the Israeli government announces a settlement expansion, there will likely be widespread opposition, rather than indifference, among the public. Obama has reminded us that, even in the absence of peace, we have a responsibility not to take steps that will make an eventual peace all the more difficult.

Obama's biggest misstep in the speech was urging Israelis to pressure their government. That was an ungracious and inappropriate moment. Worse, it was unncessary. Many Israelis already got the point: When the President of the United States come here to demonstrate his friendship, we shouldn't respond by expanding settlements.

Obama's more subtle goal in trying to connect with the Israeli public was to convince us to trust him on Iran—to give up the option of a unilateral Israeli strike. But it's doubtful whether Israelis will trust anyone with their security on an existential threat. When Obama said that he has our back on Iran, Netanyahu's pointed response was that Israel can defend itself. That’s exactly what many of us want to hear from our prime minister.

Obama's achievement is to have ended the debate here about whether or not he is a friend of Israel. But that was always the wrong question. The real question is whether Obama's policies—on Iran, on Syria, on Egypt—are helping create a safer or more dangerous region. When the impact of Obama's embrace inevitably fades, we will be left with the fear that, for all his affection for us, this President still doesn't understand how to deal with the Middle East.  

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor of TNR and a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His forthcoming book is Like Dreamers: The Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem in the Six-Day War and the Divided Israel They Created.