There were low expectations for the summit meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but the talks were a major diplomatic and personal success for both leaders.
President Obama used the occasion to reset his relationship with Israel and Bibi. He did four things particularly well.
First, in a speech before Israeli students, Obama made it clear that although he and his government were not supportive of the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the fact that there was some ongoing construction was not an excuse for the Palestinians to do nothing — i.e., to make no effort to restart the peace negotiations with Israel.
Recall that in the past, Obama pressured Bibi to stop all West Bank settlement expansion as a precondition to the Palestinians re-entering peace negotiations. At that time Bibi caved to Obama’s demands and put a moratorium on such activity. But Abbas and his people failed to enter into negotiations forthwith. (The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.) They stalled and by the time they half-heartedly entered into negotiations with Israel, it was clear they were not serious about sitting down and seriously negotiating a substantive peace.
Clearly, Obama, realized he had overplayed his hand on the settlement matter. This time around, he called on the Palestinians to sit down and negotiate without preconditions.
Second, when Obama was last in the Mideast, he implied publicly that the origins for the founding of Israel was just over 50 years ago. In other words, Obama was articulating the Arab position that Israel was founded in 1948 as a result of the world’s international guilt for the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis in World War II.
Many Jews believe that the Jewish people have a historic, religious and almost biblical claim to the lands where Israel was founded — a claim which dates back centuries, not decades.
On this trip, Obama acknowledged this historical and biblical claim (at least in part) by honoring the memory of Theodor Herzl, one of the historical founders of Israel who died in the early 20th century, by laying a symbolic stone on his grave.
Third, Obama made an effort to appear more friendly to Bibi. They even joked aboutBibi’s efforts to convince Obama to establish a “red line” on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The two men are not all of sudden great buddies. But at least there appears to be a greater mutual respect between these two stubborn leaders. And that is a huge achievement.
Lastly, Obama, used the power of his presidency to convince Bibi and Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan to make nice and mend what was once a close military and diplomatic relationship between Turkey and Israel. For his part Bibi called the Turkish Prime Minister and publicly apologized for the loss of Turkish lives that occurred when Israeli soldiers boarded one of the Turkish boats bound for Gaza to break through the Israeli naval blockade. Bibi also promised Erdogan, that Israel would pay reparations for the loss of life.
Pre-Erdogan, Turkey had a very close military and diplomatic relationship with Israel.Bibi’s apology may be the beginning of a resetting of this important Israeli/Turkish relationship. It was also important for Israel,Turkey and the U.S. since it will help these allies to focus on the Syrian crisis in the Israeli/Turkish backyard.
In the past, I have not been a fan of Obama’s distant and cool treatment of Israel. This time, Obama brought his “A” game scored the winning “three pointer” with just seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of this diplomatic contest.