President Barack Obama used his first official visit to Israel and the West Bank to build urgency for restarting peace talks and seek more patience on confronting Iran, often speaking past government leaders to harness public support.
“Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks,” Obama told a crowd of mostly college-age Israelis gathered at a convention center in Jerusalem yesterday to hear the keynote speech of his trip. “You must create the change that you want to see.”
Since arriving in Tel Aviv on March 20, Obama has set out to persuade skeptical Israelis that his support for the Jewish state is genuine and that he won’t compromise on a commitment to keep the U.S. as Israel’s strongest ally. The president has stressed that he brought no agenda to achieve a breakthrough on the peace process or on the other flash points in the region.
On his final morning in Israel, Obama paid tribute today to two central figures in Jewish and Israeli history, as well as the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. At Mount Herzl, Obama laid wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated by a Jewish opponent of his landmark accords with the Palestinians.
Several of Rabin’s relatives greeted Obama at the prime minister’s grave, where he laid a stone from the grounds of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington. Later he visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, rekindling the eternal flame in the Hall of Remembrance and paying tribute to victims of the genocide. “In the survival of a strong Jewish state of Israel the Holocaust will never happen again,” he said.
Obama next lunched privately with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem before visiting Bethlehem, his last event before departing for Jordan. The president, accompanied by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, toured the Church of the Nativity and saw the Grotto of the Nativity, where Jesus is said to have been born.
Because a sandstorm grounded his helicopter, the president went by motorcade to Bethlehem. It sped through the concrete wall separating Israel from the West Bank.
Palestinian Authority security personnel lined the streets. About a dozen protesters stood in front of a store and held up signs. “Gringo, return to your colony,” read one.
Obama, 51, laced his public remarks yesterday with Hebrew expressions, stories of the Passover holiday and historical and cultural references. He also spent hours with Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres and viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“I think they came to the conclusion that the leverage they have is the bully pulpit,” Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at European Council on Foreign Relations in London, said of Obama and his advisers.
“Unless he establishes that ability to talk directly to the Israelis, it is not available to him,” Levy said.
Obama also expressed empathy for Palestinians who are willing to pursue peace with Israel. He visited a youth center in Ramallah in the West Bank funded by U.S. taxpayers and held a private roundtable with Palestinian youths.
“I know that the Palestinian people are deeply frustrated,” Obama said at a news conference with Abbas before his Jerusalem speech. He urged Palestinians to negotiate with Israel for the good of their children, even if the Israelis expand settlements the Palestinians regard as illegal and that Obama has opposed.
“I’m reminded of my own daughters, and I know what hopes and aspirations I have for them,” Obama said. “There was a time when my daughters could not expect to have the same opportunities in their own country as somebody else’s daughters. What’s true in the United States can be true here as well.”
Hours before Obama arrived in Ramallah, four rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel, with one hitting a courtyard in Sderot, a town Obama visited in 2008 when he was a presidential candidate. It caused damage but no injuries.
Obama reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself against such attacks and delivered a message to Israel’s enemies, including Iran.
“Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere,” Obama said to applause at the convention center.
Obama said peace was a moral imperative for a democracy, as well as a strategic interest for Israel.
“Put yourself in their shoes; look at the world through their eyes,” he said of Palestinians. Given the upheaval and demographic trends in the region and “frustration in the international community about this conflict,” Obama said, “Israel needs to reverse an undertow of isolation.”
While calling Israel’s continued settlement activity “counterproductive,” he stopped short of demanded a halt.
Obama also made an economic argument for peace.
The U.S. and Israel have $40 billion in trade, he said, and the Jewish state should have that kind of relationship “with every country in the world.”
Israel’s economy grew 3.1 percent last year, down from 4.6 percent in 2011, the Central Bureau of Statistics said in a March 10 report.
Israel’s output per capita is about 10 times that of the Palestinian territories, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. The International Monetary Fund in Washington forecasts growth of 5 percent in the latter this year, compared with 6 percent in 2012, and expects a “continuing downward trend in subsequent years.”
Obama didn’t set a timetable for talks. Secretary of State John Kerry plans meetings in Israel after the president departs on how to move the process forward. Obama and Netanyahu met once more at the airport before Obama departed.
In Jerusalem today, Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said the prime minister is eager to meet with Kerry tomorrow night and would like to renew peace talks with Abbas as soon as possible.
“We’re at the pre-breakthrough stage,” Regev said at a news conference to sum up the Obama visit.
In his Jerusalem speech, the U.S. president vowed not to let Iran gain a nuclear weapon while he pressed for more time to let diplomatic and economic pressure work.
“Strong and principled diplomacy is the best way to ensure that the Iranian government forsakes nuclear weapons,” he said. “But Iran must know this time is not unlimited.”
While he was interrupted once by a heckler, the audience applauded Obama dozens of times throughout his address and gave him a standing ovation at the end.
Obama “broke through on this trip to Israel in a way that he has not in the last four years, demonstrating directly to the Israeli public that he cares about their future and security,” David Makovsky, research director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a policy center in Washington, said. At the same time, he gave them “very candid talk on the Palestinian issue.”
“If a sign of leadership is knowing how to say tough things to a home audience, Obama demonstrated leadership to both home courts, even if it is too soon to assess the policy implications of the trip,” Makovsky said.
Whether the emotional and rhetorical connections Obama made translate into action will depend on how Israeli political leaders respond, said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political science professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“These inspiration moments dissipate if nothing on the ground changes,” Wolfsfeld said.
Etai Bar, 25, a political science student at Ben Gurion University, said that while he agrees with Obama about restarting the peace process, many in the audience and the government are skeptical.
“As a student of politics, I know it won’t change that much,” Bar said. “My leaders are stubborn.”