GSPM Director: Obama’s Trip ‘Good First Step’

Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu
President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 20, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
March 25, 2013

Mark Kennedy discusses highlights of Obama’s trip to the Middle East.

President Barack Obama last week captured the world’s attention with a three-day trip to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. The tour came early in the president’s second term and set the stage for U.S.-Israel relations. George Washington Today spoke with Mark Kennedy, a former member of Congress and current director of GW’s Graduate School of Political Management, to analyze the visit.

Q: Explain the significance of Obama’s visit to the Middle East at this point in his term.

A: The visit to the Middle East served two purposes for President Obama. First, this trip sets the table for Obama to ramp up future engagement in the Middle East if he chooses to do so. No foreign policy prize has been more elusive—and therefore desirable—to presidents from either party than a lasting peace deal between Israel and Palestine.

Secondly, it allowed him to mend a relationship that grew strained during his first term. Obama’s previous criticisms of Israeli policy positions veered from a multi-decade bi-partisan Bill Clinton-George W. Bush consensus and did not play well in Israel. Judging that the Israeli people would be unwilling to seriously embrace peace negotiations with those that deny its right to exist without a strong ally in the U.S., Obama’s purpose was to reassure Israelis that “so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd [you are not alone].”

Q: What were the White House’s expectations of this trip, and do you feel they were met?

A: The White House successfully lowered expectations for his trip. The trip was not to restart peace talks, but to reassure both Israelis and Americans that President Obama supports America’s close alliance with Israel and is committed to ensuring its security. Certainly Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were able to start rebuilding a relationship that was strained over the past four years and especially during the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. After this trip, both sides should feel like the relationship is on more stable ground.

Mark KennedyQ: How will the visit affect ongoing U.S. relations with Israel and Palestine, and what tack has Obama taken with each country?

A: In the short term, this trip will help the U.S.-Israel dialogue move from the more tentative—at times even confrontational—approach exhibited during Obama’s first term toward a professional, business-like—if not friendly—tone.

By incorporating Hebrew and the Israeli narrative that Israel had frequently reached out for peace only to rebuffed by a divided or unwilling partner into his speech and dropping his support for halting settlements as a pre-condition for talks, President Obama’s reception in the Palestinian territories was more tentative.

Q: Did Obama “repair relations” with Israel, as many wondered whether he could?

A: That will not be known for some time. President Obama’s words were well received, but history has given the Israeli people reasons to be skeptical and to look to actions for confirmation. However, I do think there is a thawing of tensions. Obama toned down his rhetoric on settlements during this trip, which has been a sticking point in the past. The situation in Israel is also quite different. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition is much more fragile than it was in the past. He can’t afford to be as confrontational on the issue without risking his support in the Knesset. Netanyahu was also doing his part to reassure Israelis saying, “People should get to know President Obama the way I’ve gotten to know him.” Translation: I know him. I trust him. You should too. Whether Israelis take that message to heart will take some time to figure out. 

Q: Did the president adequately address the nuclear threat posed by Iran?

A: The president continues to say that “all options are on the table,” i.e., a military strike to disable Iranian nuclear facilities. At their joint press conference, both men agreed that Iran must not develop a nuclear weapon. While their words meant to reassure those worried about the Iranian threat, the lack of progress in talks with Iran and paucity of ideas for successful negotiations leave many still skeptical of these assurances.

Q: How do you interpret the American public’s reaction to Obama’s trip?

A: Polls show that even though there is a segment of Americans who sympathize more with the Palestinian view in the Middle East conflict, the majority of Americans view Israel as a close friend of the United States. Therefore, I expect that President Obama’s pivot towards a more supportive stance towards Israel will be generally well received.

Q: What is the strategic importance of Obama’s decision to organize a phone call between Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan?  

A: Israel and Turkey are essential players in Middle East peace and have historically been anchors of American diplomacy in the region. Tensions between the two nations had been rising for some time, and the relationship suffered. Their rapprochement is vital to any hopes for effective American efforts on the larger issues in the region like Syria, Iran, or Palestine.

Q: Can you comment on the speech that Obama made to the people of Israel? How do you interpret the Israeli media’s response?

A: As with any speech, it is most effective when it speaks to all segments of society.  Similar to his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama incorporated appeals to the goals and aspirations of both sides of the ideological divide. Israelis of both a more dovish or hawkish bent found aspects of Obama’s remarks with which they could connect. As such it came off as well-meaning tough love, as Israeli diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid called it, “an embrace and a punch.”

Yet, living in a country that faces daily security threats, it is understandable that the Israeli press is skeptical. Several commentators focused on the fact that though the speech was a good first step, much remains to be done to lay the groundwork for peace. Tel Aviv-based journalist Noam Sheizaf observed, “Without meaningful political actions, this was an empty effort.” Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea commented that Obama “ now a friend, albeit a naïve one … Obama returns to the U.S. today and to its problems... He leaves us with a wonderful speech, and with the same impasse that existed before his arrival.”

Q: What was effective about the trip?

A: This was an effective trip for President Obama in many respects. Expectations were kept in line with achievable outcomes. The goal of warmer relationships between the current governments of the U.S. and Israel were achieved. The close bonds between the U.S. and Jordan were affirmed with the assurance of increased aid as it struggles to cope with scores of refugees from war-torn Syria. And the timing of the call between Israel and Turkey punctuated a trip that effectively took steps to set the table for possible future action.

Q: Do you anticipate any specific actions on the part of the State Department or the White House following this visit?

A: I would expect the White House to continue friendly overtures towards the countries the president visited and to selectively take steps that would lay the groundwork for potential future peace overtures. President Obama recognizes that there may be an opportune time for him to engage more robustly in such an effort in the future and wants to increase the likelihood that doing so would lead to success.

Obama urged Israelis to push their own government toward peace: “Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.” Without a significant change in Arab attitudes, this view leaves little current hope for a balanced approach towards regional peace in that the Arab Spring has spawned governments more beholden to voters with negative attitudes towards Israel. The true test of Obama’s seriousness will be whether he seeks to encourage not just Israelis, but Arab audiences, that they should be open to compromises and willing to take risks to achieve peace.