President Barack Obama wrapped up his Middle East trip this weekend defying the expectations of many, impressing millions of Israelis with his comments and emphasizing how important it is for Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs alike to give the peace process another chance.
From a substantive point of view, the American president’s trip was lacking in detail. No new peace initiative was given to the Israelis or Palestinians. Unlike in previous encounters with both sides, Obama made it a policy on this trip to stick with talking about the prospects for peace rather than diving into it. Thrusting himself in the middle of another attempt at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, particularly when the trust deficit is so high between the parties, was the last thing that he wanted to do.
Yet a lack of substance does not mean that the visit was purely ceremonial, nor does it mean that Obama’s discussions with political leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah were a waste of time.
Indeed, by setting the expectations of the trip low, the president managed to eclipse the standard that he himself set — speaking warmly and effectively to an Israeli public that was previously unsure of his dedication to the American-Israel relationship, all the while putting the topic of peacemaking back on the agenda.
One of the more visible successes of Obama’s state visit was his easygoing demeanor with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who only a year ago lectured the president in the Oval Office of the White House on why his advocacy of a two-state solution was not going to work. The two leaders have never got along on a personal level and their past appearances in front of the cameras have been, at best, unemotional. This trip struck a different chord, with Obama and Netanyahu looking comfortable with one another on the surface. The premier voiced his deep and sincere appreciation for Obama’s steadfast support of Israel, something that would have surprised the most avid of Israel watchers just a few months ago.
President Obama’s finest hour came in the form of a lengthy and impassioned speech given to young Israeli students at the Jerusalem Convention Center on Thursday. He challenged Israel’s young to pressure their government to hammer out a final settlement to their dispute with the Palestinians. “Political leaders,” said the president, “will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.”
This was an astute observation. Israel’s present leadership is far from convinced a Palestinian state will ever work while Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas insists on a Jewish settlement freeze before even resuming negotiations.
Obama’s call for peace doesn’t change the equation. But if it’s met with a renewed international commitment to dialogue, it could take the Israelis and Palestinians one step closer to peace.
If not, the visit will likely be remembered, especially by the Palestinians, as three days of politically motivated atmospherics and hot air.