U.S. President Barack Obama addressed a crowd of more than 1,000 Israelis on Thursday, the climactic event during his first presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank. The event harkened back to Obama's speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, when he reached out to the Muslim world by quoting the Koran and insisting on the values shared by the United States and the Muslim world.
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Employing phrases in Hebrew and quotes from famous Israeli leaders, Obama did two things in his speech today. He reassured the Israelis that he understands their position, but he also pushed for the resumption of the peace process with the Palestinians — and for the cause of peace in general. Obama did not present a new road map or delineate preconditions for negotiations. His exhortation to the crowd to make sacrifices for peace was indicative of the divergent strategic positions between the U.S. and Israel, but it also represented Obama's way of trying, in some small way, to shape Israeli politics to better suit Washington's interests.
On the surface, Obama's visit to Israel was unabashedly friendly. The president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be on a first name basis, at times playfully joking with each other. There were also poignant moments, such as when Obama quoted a line from a letter that Netanyahu's deceased brother Yoni had written. But the outward solidarity has not changed the issues over which the two clash. Obama has insisted that all options are on the table for dealing with Iran, but he will not indulge Netanyahu's talks of red lines. And while Netanyahu has given key posts in his Cabinet to politicians who have historically supported settlement construction in the West Bank, Obama insisted that settlement building must stop and that peace with the Palestinians is the only way for Israel to maintain its security.
Obama chose to focus on that theme in his speech. In the same way that the president attempted to rise above politics in his Cairo speech and reach out directly to people in the Muslim world, in Thursday's speech he tried to reach out directly to an Israeli population that has grown increasingly cynical about peace with the Palestinians and whose increasing wariness reflects the instability on the country's borders.
This reflects the foreign policy shift that has taken place under Obama's administration. Under Obama, the United States has increasingly eschewed military intervention and has tried to regain its footing in other areas of the world — including the Asia-Pacific theater — while tending to its own domestic economic issues. There is little the president can do politically to establish peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, just as there is little he can do to stabilize Egypt's internal domestic issues or end the fragmented conflict within Syria's borders.
Because of his lack of political options, Obama is using his charisma and position to affect public opinion. The Israelis know how important their country's relationship with the United States is. That is why Israeli coverage of Obama's visit has been so intense and why so many Israelis were disappointed when the president did not visit Israel during his first term. It may have been forgotten now, but in 2009 many Israelis lamented Obama's decision to give a major speech in Cairo without traveling to Israel.
The words Obama chose to share with Israelis on Thursday were not the ones he shared with the Muslim world in 2009. Obama did not focus on democracy, nor did he spend much time speaking about Iran, except to try assuring Israelis that the United States would protect Israel from existential threats. Obama chose instead to talk about the peace process with the Palestinians, and in doing so he chose to appeal to Israeli sensibilities, rather than clashing with Netanyahu or presenting a new American cure-all. Obama used a hands-off approach that fit well into America's overall foreign policy shift.
But the makeup of Israel's new coalition government will make real movement on the issue difficult, and with conflict on every one of its borders, Israel has little reason to make meaningful concessions. From the Israeli point of view, disengaging from Gaza only brought rocket attacks. Many in Israel are relieved that the country did not relinquish the Golan Heights in order to sign a peace treaty with Syria, considering that Syrian rebels are now conquering towns nearby.
Ultimately the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more a symbol than an issue of geopolitical gravity, but Obama's speech Thursday had symbolic value of its own. It demonstrated just how little influence the United States has to effect change in the region, and how little interest the United States has right now in digging into the region's problems. Superficially, it showed that U.S. politicians still feel a need to maintain a close relationship with Israel; beneath the surface, it indicated the divergent nature of U.S. and Israeli strategic concerns. Indeed, Obama's next stop to visit King Abdullah in Jordan may be more important than the trip to Israel and the West Bank if it translates into economic support for Jordan, a country struggling with economic challenges and with spillover from the Syrian conflict.
That said, the power of symbols can be hard to predict. A man in Tunisia set himself on fire in 2010 to protest economic hardship, and this precipitated a reorganization of the entire region's political reality. The United States is constrained in the goals it can pursue in the Middle East, so Obama used the only tool at his disposal: He tried to make his speech a symbolic exhortation for Israelis to align their desires more closely with the American point of view.