Obama to Israel: ‘We stand together’

Barack Obama in Israel (Photo: Flash 90)

Barack Obama in Israel (Photo: Flash 90)

He was barely off the plane before he ticked all the necessary boxes.

Right from the start, Mr Obama spoke about the connection between the modern state of Israel and the Jewish people who lived in the same land “more than 3,000 years ago”. This was not just an opening pleasantry.

The president was atoning for his landmark speech at Cairo University in 2009 when he seemed to be saying that the Jewish people had received a state to compensate them for the Holocaust.

At the end of the first speech of many, the president affirmed “the unbreakable bonds between our nations” and their “eternal” alliance.

After such a perfectly choreographed start to the presidential visit, it was not surprising to see that the three leaders — Presidents Obama and Peres, and Prime Minister Netanyahu, standing to attention for the national anthems — were all wearing identical dark suits and light blue ties.

In an unorthodox piece of stage-management, the microphones were allowed to pick up the small-talk, including jokes between the US President and Israeli Prime Minister at the expense of their parliamentary rivals. There was even a reference to the differences between them over Mr Netanyahu’s demand that the president set out a “red line” for the Iranians. Mr Obama joked that “Bibi is always talking about red lines. This is all a psychological ploy.”

Both men did everything to show responsiveness to the other’s position. Mr Obama said that there was “very little daylight” between American and Israeli assessments of the Iranian threat and, during his first day in Israel, did not mention the West Bank settlements.

For his part, Mr Netanyahu had not mentioned the peace process even once during the recent election campaign and coalition negotiations. But in the first hours of the presidential visit, he made two rare references to his support for a two-state solution.

He would love to go down in history as the man who brought peace to the Mid-East

However, when Mr Obama was asked at the first press conference with Mr Netanyahu on Wednesday evening what he would consider a “successful visit”, the president suddenly became a lot less eloquent.

After assuring Israelis that the US “has got your back”, he sounded hesitant and said he had come “to listen” to Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

To another questioner, he admitted that solving “the Palestinian problem” was “very difficult” and warned against “a Pollyanna-ish view of ‘can’t we all get along together’”.

Yet this is the same president who forced Israel to temporarily freeze all settlement building in the West Bank. Although in his first term he had 11 meetings with Mr Netanyahu, more than with any other head of state, some were distinctly frosty, others stormy.

Now, despite having won a second term and apparently having no political or electoral concerns, the US president is tip-toeing around the contentious issues and seeking to portray his Israeli counterpart as his oldest friend.

Despite the presence of doveish Tzipi Livni and centrist Yair Lapid in the new cabinet (the president lingered over them at the airport presentation), there is a strong right-wing majority in the new Israeli administration and its agenda is clearly focused inward.

The US President is not interested in the National Service law or school reform. He would love to go down in history as the man who brought peace to Israelis and Palestinians.

Realistically, he prefers not to be remembered as the president who jeopardised the historic alliance between the two countries.

Mr Obama, who has now proved that he is not going to “throw Israel under the bus” as some critics have claimed, would like to come back to Israel while still president. But he will only do so if, next time in Jerusalem, he can witness a signing ceremony. He has four long years to wait for that to happen.

Last updated: 3:05pm, March 21 2013