Obama leaves sweet taste, but little more

Barack Obama with Miss Israel, Yityish Aynaw

Barack Obama with Miss Israel, Yityish Aynaw

President Barack Obama’s high-profile, 48-hour visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority last week appeared to end on a low-key note.

Following his rapturously received speech to Israeli students and the state dinner at President Shimon Peres’s residence the previous evening, where Mr Obama met Yityish Aynaw, the current Miss Israel, Friday began with a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.

From there, Mr Obama had been scheduled to fly to Bethlehem for a tour of the Church of Nativity, accompanied by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But a freak sandstorm suddenly descended on Jerusalem, grounding his helicopter and forcing the presidential convoy to drive to Bethlehem.

The hitch caused an hour’s delay, allowing for just a quick dash through the church, followed by a few minutes’ chat with Mr Abbas and then a road trip to Ben-Gurion Airport where the farewell ceremony was drastically reduced. The president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had yet another meeting in a cabin on the tarmac.

Only as Air Force One was rolling down the runway, taking Mr Obama to a short stop in Jordan and then back to Washington, did it emerge that during his last hour on Israeli soil he had brokered a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel, calling up Prime Minister Erdogan and handing the phone to Mr Netanyahu.

It was a significant achievement but served to highlight the fact that while the visit had been a PR success, it had not achieved much progress on any of the other burning issues. Skepticism still lingers within the Israeli establishment over whether Mr Obama is willing to go all the way to stop the Iranians getting a bomb.

The president also appeared very hesitant on the possibility that the Syrian regime could use chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war.

Mr Netanyahu, for the first time in over two years, publicly reaffirmed his commitment to a two-state solution, twice in Mr Obama’s presence, but it did nothing to relaunch talks.

In his meetings with Mr Abbas, Mr Obama reiterated his desire for a Palestinian state and his oppostion to Israeli settlements in the West Bank but refused to agree with the Palestinian demand for a freeze on settlement building as a condition for talks.

The Palestinian public was singularly underwhelmed by the presidential visits to Ramallah and Bethlehem, where his arrival was received with either indifference or protests.

The Israeli students at Mr Obama’s Jerusalem speech greeted his call upon them to demand from their politicians brave actions on the road to peace with tumultuous applause; but the response from the Israeli government was lukewarm at best. The Prime Minister’s Office response referred only to the section of the speech on Iran, while Naftali Bennett, the newly installed Economics Minister and one of the kingmakers of the new coalition, said: “A nation cannot be considered an occupier within its own land.”

The real work is now down to Secretary of State John Kerry and his team, who remained in the region for a few extra days and plan to be back on a regular basis. The Kerry plan envisages trust-building steps including quiet Israeli agreements to “partially freeze” some settlement building and to release Palestinian prisoners.

The PA will be asked to cease from pursuing its agenda through the UN and the ICC. But whether Mr Obama’s visit succeeded in building sufficient goodwill for either side to take these steps remains unclear.

Last updated: 4:45pm, March 28 2013