In Jerusalem, Obama Tries the Soft Sell
The lovefest between Barack Obama and the Israelis continued on the second day of his first visit to the country as U.S. president.
After a mushy press conference yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama joked during a speech to the Israeli people today that the last four years of nastiness between the two was just a plot to create material for the Israeli satirical TV program Eretz Nehederet.
Obama wasn't content to make up just with "my friend Bibi," as he called Netanyahu. He's going for the whole country. Although his tenure has brought the tightest security cooperation between the U.S. and Israel ever, Obama has been perceived as tepid toward the Jewish state. For one thing, when he explained U.S. support for Israel in a major 2009 speech, he cited only the Holocaust, causing many citizens to doubt he understood their ancient connection to their homeland. For another, he took some unpopular positions on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the past.
The president wasn't going to step in either of those traps in Jerusalem. By the fourth sentence of today's address, Obama had mentioned the "ancient history of the Jewish people." The speech contained more than a dozen references designed to convey that he understood Israel belonged to the Jews, and not because Europeans had persecuted them.
And lest anyone again think him pushy on the peace process, Obama stressed that he was speaking as a friend, that he appreciated only Israelis could decide their future and that he was only making points for consideration. He even threw in some clunkily pronounced Hebrew phrases.
Early in his first term, Obama insisted that Israel freeze settlement building in the West Bank. This time, he merely said Israel needs to recognize that additional construction hurts the cause of peace.
In 2011, the president suggested basing a final border between Israel and a Palestinian state on the 1967 armistice line, with mutually agreed land swaps. At the time, Netanyahu claimed the U.S. was advocating indefensible borders for Israel, though in fact the land swaps would address Israel's security concerns. Still, to avoid such rancor in Jerusalem, Obama skipped over the details of a potential plan.
Instead, he exhorted Israelis to press their leaders to pursue a peace deal because it would be good for Israel and just for the Palestinians. These were good points, but they've already been pretty well absorbed. Two recent polls have shown a solid majority of Israelis -- two-thirds -- favor a final settlement with the terms that just about everybody who wants peace agrees are necessary: a two-state solution, with Jerusalem shared, in which some West Bank Jewish settlements are annexed by Israel and the Palestinians are compensated with equal parcels of Israeli land.
On the other hand, just 43 percent of Palestinians said yes to this arrangement in a recent survey. It's too bad Obama didn't try his charm offensive out on the Palestinian people, even if Arabic is even tougher than Hebrew to get right.
(Lisa Beyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)