President Obama’s first trip to Israel as president has drawn mixed reactions from Pittsburghers living here and in the Jewish state.
The president visited Israel from March 20 to 22. While there, he met extensively with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, spoke to Arab and Jewish university students in a Jerusalem convention center, traveled to the West Bank for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and visited Yad Vashem. He also flew to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah.
Some Pittsburghers were enthusiastic about the visit and its potential impact; others greeted the trip with guarded optimism. Still others believe the trip will change little in the Middle East.
Some observers did upgrade their opinion of Obama as a result of the visit. Rabbi Danny Schiff, the former community scholar of the Agency for Jewish Learning, who now lives in Israel, was among them.
Posting on Facebook, Schiff wrote, “In 2009, I wrote an article that was critical of President Obama’s Cairo speech. I stated that he had misunderstood the reason for Israel’s existence, had refused to call ‘terrorism’ by its name, and had engaged in moral equivalence between Israelis and Palestinians.”
But during his visit to Jerusalem, “the president has been eloquent, warm, assuring, friendly, and accurate. Let’s hope that his future actions match his present rhetoric. But, just as I critiqued him four years ago for getting it wrong, I praise him now for putting himself in a position to lead history in the right direction.”
In Pittsburgh, Jeff Cohan, former director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, expressed guarded optimism about the visit in general and one result of the visit in particular.
“Obviously, the big accomplishment was the rapprochement between Netanyahu and [Turkish Prime Minister] Erdogan. I didn’t see any analysts predicting that,” Cohan said. “It was one of Obama’s biggest diplomatic triumphs to date; we’ll see if it sticks. You can’t say it’s going to endure — I certainly hope it does — and I give President Obama a lot of credit for getting those leaders to talk to each other.”
The deteriorating situation in Syria, which borders both Turkey and Israel, obviously motivated Obama to push for a thaw in relations between the two former allies, Cohan said.
“The United States needs its allies singing the same tune if possible to deal with this chaotic situation in Syria.”
But he understands Obama’s signature achievement of the trip could still fall through based upon Erdogan’s insistence that Israel lift its blockade of Gaza.
“That’s why I’m hesitating a little bit on whether this rapprochement will endure,” Cohan said. “I think Erdogan got into a hostile situation [with Israel] for domestic, reasons and I don’t known if those political reasons have changed, so I’m not 200 percent certain it will endure, but I’m pleased that it’s something President Obama is concerned about, and I’m confident he will follow up.”
Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the Zionist Organization of America-Pittsburgh District, said it was “great that President Obama finally made it to Israel. The visit may help repair his relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
He expressed hope that Obama will return with a “better understanding of the region and its problems,” but he warned that significant differences remain between the two world leaders.
“Actions are greater than words,” Pavilack said, “and time will tell the success of the visit.”
But Nancy Bernstein of J Street-Pittsburgh, is already calling the trip — in some respects — “historic,” singling out Obama’s address at the Convention Center in Jerusalem to both Jewish and Arab university students.
“Obama chose this audience because of his faith in the power of young people to determine their future, their children’s future and the future of their country,” Bernstein said.
While many believe Israel has no partner for peace and that Palestinians don’t really want to live peacefully with the Jewish state, Bernstein continued, “President Obama appealed to the hopeful nature of young people to dream of a better world. He expressed empathy and compassion for the persecution of Jews historically and for the terrorism that Israelis have experienced over the years.”
She believes the president’s visit “affirmed United States’ commitment to Israel’s security and called attention to the existential threat to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic homeland posed by the lack of a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinians conflict.”
Long term, though, she said the president’s words will only have impact if Secretary of State John Kerry makes a sustained diplomatic effort in the region and the American Jewish community pushes Obama and Congress to remain engaged.
“Clearly, it also depends upon Israelis to demand from their political leaders to take the necessary risks for peace,” she added.
Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, a professor of Middle East history at Carnegie Mellon University, said Obama went to Israel with an old adage in mind: “aim low and deliver.”
She thinks he did that.
“His visit in Israel was a success in that he improved his relationship with Netanyahu, brokered a Turkish-Israeli reconciliation, and satisfied most Israelis that he is indeed a friend of Israel,” Eisenberg said. “He also did what he does best: speak over the heads of the politicians to the people, particularly the younger generation, and get them excited again to work for peace with the Palestinians.
“I am disappointed, however, that he did not do likewise in Ramallah,” Eisenberg continued. “Israel can’t make peace with the Palestinians alone. He could have spoken over P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas’ head, directly to the Palestinian people, especially the youth, and tried to use those golden public speaking skills of his to excite Palestinian young people to dedicate themselves to working on peace with Israel. It takes two to tango.”
In Israel, David Rose, a Pittsburgh native who lives in the Galilee and works as an interpreter, saw Obama’s visit as something between a success and a failure.
“I guess it’s a question of geography,” Rose said. “If you lived anywhere in or around Jerusalem, the fact that the visit has ended is a tremendous success. You can now get around the city. As for myself and my family up in our neck of the woods, in Karkom above the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, we essentially saw the president’s visit from the television screen; it had little if any affect on our daily schedule.
“I don’t think the [president’s visit really changed very much here in Israel, certainly not from a micro point of view,” he continued. “From the PR standpoint, it was a great success, almost everyone got that warm, fuzzy feeling (with the exception of Jonathan Pollard, his many supporters and settlers in Judea and Samaria). As for rhetoric, here too nearly everyone heard what they wanted to hear (our prime minister feels he is back in the good graces of Washington, [the president] is convinced he has made significant strides in addressing the people of Israel, the people of Israel now seem to believe that not everyone is against us). But somehow I at least still have this lurking feeling that if Israel is one day actually threatened with an existential threat from Iran or al-Qaida in Syria … we will go it alone, we are the only ones who have our backs, no matter how many times international leaders will tell us ‘atem lo levad,’ simply because it is our fight, on our block, in our neighborhood, and as you all know, our neighborhood is often very volatile, certainly unpredictable.
“President Obama, corrected the slight and insult he made four years earlier by not visiting us,” Rose concluded. “Maybe that’s all we needed, some attention, not to be ignored. Quite human, no?”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)