President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set out last week to show the world -- and each other -- that they can get along and get things done.
Over three days in Israel, Obama and Netanyahu spent hours together each day, in private and in public. They toured cultural sites, smiled and laughed at one another’s jokes. Obama often touched the prime minister’s back as they walked side by side. Israeli television provided full-time coverage.
In their parting act March 22 on the grounds of Ben Gurion International Airport -- this time behind closed doors -- they telephoned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a step toward restoring normal relations between Turkey and Israel.
Obama and Netanyahu are two leaders whose recent re-elections mean they must deal with each another as they confront rising challenges in Iran, Syria and the region. Obama’s first official visit to Israel was a new start after four years of tense relations.
The U.S. president went to Israel knowing that their personal chemistry and substantive policy disagreements would be scrutinized. He sought to push those impediments aside.
“Any drama between me and my friend, Bibi, over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehederet,” Obama joked in a March 21 speech in Jerusalem to the delight of the young audience, making reference to a popular Israeli comedy show, whose name means “it’s a wonderful country” in English. “We just wanted to make sure the writers had good material.”
The phone call to Erdogan was a demonstrable result of the new Obama-Netanyahu courtship.
Netanyahu’s phone call with his Turkish counterpart was facilitated by Obama, and the U.S. president was on the line as the Israeli apologized to Turkey for the deaths in 2010 of nine Turks taking part in an aid flotilla to Gaza that was intercepted by Israeli security forces. The incident damaged relations between the two nations.
Obama “pulled it off -- this is a black-and-white measure of his success,” said Kemal Kirisci, head of the Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution, a policy center in Washington.
The telephone call was a “significant” development toward improved relations between Turkey and Israel that “came literally out of the blue” to analysts who follow Turkish-Israeli relations. It was a “spur-of-the-moment production on the part of Obama” that reflects another step in Obama’s “attempt to repair relations with Netanyahu, to kind of gin up the right chemistry,” he said.
To be sure, Obama’s efforts last week to reset his relationship with Netanyahu and the Israeli people will be tested over the coming weeks and months. By delivering a speech to young Israelis, where he encouraged them to pressure their political leaders to renew peace talks, Obama was indicating that he doesn’t expect that a warmer relationship with Netanyahu alone will deliver peace.
For all the goodwill that was built on this trip, strains might soon reappear with Israel likely to continue its settlement expansion, said Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“It’s a love-fest” and a smart move toward getting diplomacy restarted, Gelb said. “In the end, leaders are going to do or not do things based on what they think their political support back home will be.”
Obama, who left the Middle East after a trip to Jordan, said repeatedly during his visit that he will delegate follow-up talks with Israelis and Palestinians to his new secretary of state, John Kerry.
Kerry met yesterday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, Jordan, to continue the conversations begun earlier this week with Obama, according to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa. No details of the conversation were disclosed. Kerry then flew to Jerusalem for a late-night meeting with Netanyahu.
The reconciliation between Israel and Turkey “will help advance the cause of peace and stability in the region,” Kerry said in an e-mailed statement issued late yesterday. Netanyahu and Erdogan “deserve great credit for showing the leadership necessary to make this possible.”
“The trip was certainly not designed to create a breakthrough on peace and the circumstances now don’t lend themselves to such a breakthrough,” said Dennis Ross, a former Obama adviser and now a counselor with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Belief on each side will have to restored before any real progress will be made.”
Netanyahu rolled out the welcome mat for Obama at sites including Mt. Herzl and the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, allowing Obama to demonstrate a connection to skeptical Israelis.
In his public remarks, Obama underscored Israel’s right to defend itself against Iran as it sees fit, even as he sought more time for diplomacy. In turn, Netanyahu indicated Israel won’t push the U.S. just yet for military action against Iran. Together, they said they agreed on a general time frame for Iran’s nuclear progress.
Obama told Palestinians they must be willing to resume peace talks even if Israel continues settlement construction, even as he urged Israelis to stop the practice.
“It’s easy to be pessimistic, things are so stagnant,” said Michael Singh, former senior director of Middle East affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and now Ira Weiner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Even so, he said, “it’s not a small thing” that Netanyahu “now accepts a two-state solution, as does President Abbas. In many ways, the fundamental building blocks are there. What they need to do is reignite the process, they need to get back to the table.”
Last week’s developments marked a change from a year ago, when Obama, in an interview with the Atlantic ahead of a Netanyahu visit to Washington, described his relationship with the prime minister as “very functional.”
Months before, Obama was overheard commiserating about Netanyahu with then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy by saying, “I have to deal with him even more often than you.”
Netanyahu had showed no more affection for Obama, and his warm welcome of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to Israel last year underscored U.S. and Israeli perceptions that Netanyahu would welcome a change at the White House.
Steven Simon of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington, and Obama’s former senior director for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council, said Obama and Netanyahu are “smart leaders with complicated domestic politics facing major strategic challenges.
Room to Maneuver
‘‘It was in their interest to give each other a bit more maneuvering room in both realms,’’ he said. ‘‘And that’s what they did.’’
Obama’s involvement in the Israel and Turkey call ‘‘makes a lot of sense,’’ Simon said, because both are key U.S. alliances with common concerns including Syria.
Gelb said Obama’s and Netanyahu’s gestures suggested both men wanted to change how their relationship is perceived.
‘‘I think somebody sat down with the president before this trip who really had a good understanding of Israel and explained how you really talk to Israelis in a way that shows you care about them,” Gelb said. “He understood it finally, and everywhere he went he struck the right note.”
As for Netanyahu, Gelb said, “I think he basically decided beforehand that he was going to make every effort to make the Obama trip a big success because his political situation at home has changed and he does not want to create the impression that he is destroying relations with America. He had to change course and make nice.”