Yesterday morning, the New York Daily News ran a curious headline on a story about President Obama’s limo having mechanical difficulties in Israel. “Will Obama’s historic Israel trip be overshadowed by gaffes?” the headline read.
I’m not sure what “gaffes” and car breakdowns have to do with one another, but it seemed as if some in media were prepared to write off the president’s time in Israel as a missed political opportunity.
As of this morning, no one seems to be saying that anymore. Consider this Haaretz editorial.
President Barack Obama penetrated the hearts of the Israeli people yesterday with his moving and compelling speech at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem.
His messages, which he directed at the young audience in the hall – and to hundreds of thousands of households in Israel and the Palestinian Authority – are much more significant than his polite per-protocol remarks at other events with politicians, primarily with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. […]
Obama’s goal in coming to Israel has been achieved: He won Israeli hearts and gave Israelis a sense of security, in the hope that now they will take charge and push the leadership toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Let us hope that Obama’s call falls on attentive ears.
To be sure, Haaretz is not exactly Israel’s equivalent of Fox News, but the larger point is that those who were a little too eager to write off Obama’s trip probably should have waited another day – his Jerusalem speech resonated in Israel in ways that were arguably hard to predict.
So, what’s next?
Daniel Levy argued that the president “said all the right things in Jerusalem,” but the road ahead is steep.
If Obama does decide to prioritize a peace deal during his second term, and that is a big if, an admittedly optimistic take could look like this: Secretary of State John Kerry might shuttle between the parties to discuss the parameters and even convene direct or trilateral talks. He will also court support from Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Obama in his Ramallah press conference with Abbas seemed to rule out a focus on incremental steps for their own sake (he might be tempted by the idea of a Palestinian state with interim borders, but on that too Netanyahu’s best offer will fall short of providing an opening). Progress will be elusive; Netanyahu will offer little.
Eventually, if Kerry makes a convincing case, the president might conclude that a moment of choice has arrived and put forward his own terms of reference for convening an international conference or something similar. He mentioned his previous parameters during the Jerusalem speech, which included borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. Obama would then draw on the credit accrued during this visit to appeal directly to the Israeli public in the face of predictable recalcitrance from Netanyahu. The Israeli center might be impressed and might even generate a little pressure. Like I said, optimistic stuff.
And sadly, even this would be insufficient if several other pieces are not put in place. Key among those is that there will be consequences for Israel if it chooses rejectionism, if not from the United States then from Europe and others; that there is a politically empowered Palestinian side no longer weakened by its current divisions; and that a detailed and nuanced plan exists for engaging with Israel’s myriad tribal political leaders, including those who were not in the room on this visit and in whom Obama has yet to take an interest, such as the Haredi and Palestinian-Arab parties. Big ifs indeed.
But, hey, yesterday was a start, and a reasonably good one at that.