Given how low the expectations were for President Barack Obama’s highly publicized trip to the Middle East, it may not be saying much to declare that he exceeded them. But given the precarious state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, it would also be easy to under-appreciate just how crucial his efforts may prove to be in the long quest for a lasting peace in the Middle East.
When Obama arrived in Israel, he faced many who believed that the possibility of a two-state solution was on its death bed, if not gone already. Although the president brokered no breakthrough, he did make it appear that, for at least a little while longer, a negotiated peace deal is still a legitimate option.
On the second day of his trip, Obama gave a speech in Jerusalem that was well received by both the spectators in the audience and the Israeli and international press. This is not to be understated — in a conflict where distrust, cynicism and skepticism on both sides are at soaring levels, President Obama’s ability to speak to the concerns and needs of both Israelis and Palestinians was crucial. Raising hopes is a key variable in this conflict, where the element most lacking in negotiations is often political will.
Obama urged Israelis and Palestinians to see the world through each others’ eyes and made clear that he can do so — something that many Israelis in particular had doubted. The president emphasized that peace is “necessary, just and possible” — necessary for Israel’s security and viability as Jewish democracy, just because Palestinians living under military occupation deserve a state of their own and possible because Israel is the strongest country in the region, with the U.S. as its unconditional ally, and with leaders like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who can be a “true partner.”
The president acknowledged that a two-state solution is far from guaranteed. However, with his legacy still to be decided and no election in the near future, the time for strong U.S. diplomatic leadership appears to be ripening. Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged to make Israeli-Palestinian peace a prioritized issue, and he is set to lead exploratory talks over the next few weeks, with the hopes of direct negotiations thereafter.
On a symbolic front, the trip was certainly a success and erased Israeli doubts about Obama’s understanding of their views that had lingered since his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo four years ago. But President Obama’s trip to Israel yielded some surprising tangible results as well.
At Obama’s urging, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for actions taken by Israeli commandos during a 2010 raid on a Turkish ship that was part of a flotilla attempting to breach a blockade of Gaza. Nine were killed in the raid, which drew international condemnation. Both countries agreed to restore ambassadors and normalize relations.
This unexpected reconciliation is good news for several reasons; notably, any legitimate peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians would need the backing of Turkey, a stable and strong country in the Middle East and a pillar of American foreign policy in the region.
On Monday, again at Obama’s urging, Israel announced that it would release withheld payments to the Palestinian Authority, funds that the Israeli government suspended after the Palestinian Authority successfully sought to upgrade its status at the United Nations in November. That is another step meant to help build confidence between the two sides to restart negotiations, as well as to disempower Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
To be sure, Obama has made serious mistakes in his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the past, and his commitment to Israel and the peace process in general has been questioned by many at home and abroad. However, following a trip that yielded tangible results as well as pragmatic and inspiring rhetoric, Obama has provided himself with at least a chance to lead Israelis and Palestinians to a negotiated peace.