WASHINGTON — It’s a good day for the United States when its president goes abroad and receives cheers for challenging conventional wisdom while advancing our country’s core interests. Doing so requires guts and strength of character. And that is exactly what Barack Obama did on his recent trip to Israel.
We are all familiar with the arguments often made against Obama by his domestic critics when it comes to his Israel policy. To paraphrase the critics, Obama apologized for America to the Muslim world and unfairly pressured Israel over settlements, thereby fraying the American-Israeli relationship while harming Israeli security and undermining American strength abroad.
However, the cheers Obama received from Israel’s people and leaders during this trip belied his critics. If anything, the president’s trip reaffirmed, as Obama said, the “unbreakable bonds” between the United States and Israel, and “America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.”
Obama didn’t receive applause from thousands of Israelis when he called for a Palestinian state because he was telling them something that they didn’t want to hear. And he didn’t receive a bear hug from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu after their joint press conference because Netanyahu was offended by Obama’s position that diplomacy was the preferred route for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program.
Rather, Obama received their support because he told them the truth about his views and his positions, and he did so in a manner that made them feel respected, understood and heard. He verbalized positions — the creation of a Palestinian state and diplomacy with Iran — that Obama’s domestic critics may not like, but that Israelis themselves already support.
He went to Israel and he conquered. And he left his domestic critic’s mouths agape at what they were witnessing.
The president also, throughout this visit, mortally punctured the conventional wisdom in Washington that Israelis do not want Americans to call for peace between themselves and their Palestinian neighbors. In a memorable paragraph of the speech that he gave in Jerusalem to 2,000 Israeli students, he called for Israeli empathy toward the Palestinians while also calling for a Palestinian state:
“Put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own. Living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. … It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or displace Palestinian families from their homes. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”
And how did the Israeli attendees respond? They cheered. Their cheers sent a clear message to their government, to the Palestinians, and to Washington about Israeli support for the president’s words and views on this issue.
This speech was a gamble and a risky move, since there was no guarantee that either the Israeli people or its government would react positively to these words. They very well could have booed. But they didn’t.
What is more, when Obama called on Israelis to pressure their own government to achieve peace, the Israeli government, to its credit, responded graciously. In fact, in his next meeting with Netanyahu, Obama brokered a fence-mending conversation between Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. This suggests that Netanyahu understood that Obama had strengthened his popularity in Israel as a result of this trip.
And it wasn’t Obama’s only risky move during the trip that paid off.
On Iran, at his friendly joint press conference with Obama, Netanyahu backed away from his long-held position that Iran could potentially have enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb by this summer, a position that he declared at the United Nations last September.
Instead, he now said, “If Iran decides to go for a nuclear weapon — that is, to actually manufacture the weapon — then it probably … would take them about a year.”
That means a year from now, and only if they decide to make a weapon. These are the same words that Obama has been using for the past several years.
It’s clear that Netanyahu, just like the Israeli students in Jerusalem, felt assured by Obama’s commitment to Israeli security, so much so, that he was willing to modify his past positions and move toward Obama’s.
So, at the end of the day, what Obama did in Israel was quite remarkable. He reminded his critics that the Israeli people support a two-state solution with the Palestinians. He secured a rapprochement on Turkey that no one had predicted prior to the trip. And he got the Israeli government to endorse his position on nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Not bad for a three-day trip. Not bad at all.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/JoelMartinRubin. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)