Friday, March 22, 2013

Has The Obama Visit To Israel Helped?

President Obama's trip to Israel has been a whirlwind tour of museums, holy sites, and convention centers.  The Onion's insinuation that the visit resembles a Birthright Trip is not too far off (though someone should notify the Onion that the minimum age for participation is 18, not 16).

The real question, however, is whether the President's trip will have a political impact.  Has President Obama convinced the Israeli people that no, seriously, he does have their back?  Has he mended frayed ties between himself and Prime Minister Netanyahu?  And what are the implications of these dynamics on the US-Israel relationship on the whole?

Clearly the President's trip has not been a panacea.  The heckler in yesterday's speech at the Jerusalem's International Convention Center (subtly but closely reminiscent of his Cairo speech in 2009) makes clear that despite the carefully selected audience and otherwise highly staged photo ops, opposition to and mistrust towards the President persist in Israel.  While polling data will reveal the extent to which perceptions have changed, four years of mistrust have not been erased by a 2-day visit.

That being said, the visit signaled improved ties between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.  The question is whether these talks caused improved relations, or are the effect of an already improved relationship as both leaders begin new terms.  The issue of joint focus during their talks on Wednesday was Iran - an issue on which both the US and Israel are in rhetorical alignment.  While Vice President Biden's admission that differences exist on "tactic" reveals some daylight, the President and the Prime Minister avoided focusing on the more contentious issue in their talks. 

In his speech yesterday, President Obama highlighted some of these controversial issues, discussing settlements, checkpoints, and Palestinian rights.  Yet he did so in a way that was consistent with the underlying value principles upon which he premised his support for Israel.  The administration knew it could not erase four years of mistrust, so it opted for honesty.   

The President's strategy was to focus on demonstrating sincerity - even if that meant sincere disagreement on certain points.  President Obama's sincerity in opposing settlement expansion is the same sincerity he brings to the more worrisome issue of Iran. Israelis may not agree with US policy on these issues, but they now can be assured their points of overlap with the administration's positions are genuine areas of alignment.

The ultimate impact of the President's visit will become clearer in the days ahead.  It remains unclear whether the visit has helped the President's standing in Israel, his ability to advance U.S. policy in the Middle East, or his domestic approval in the United States.  However, the visit has certainly not hurt the President, and will likely have a positive impact on each of these objectives.