US President Barack Obama's message was clear as he spoke to hundreds of hand-picked Israeli students at the convention center in Jerusalem. Palestinian and Israeli leaders, he said, will not come to agreement on a peace deal without pressure from below.
"I can promise you this," Obama said. "Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see."
He also implored his listeners to "put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes," in reference to the Palestinians who, he said, live "their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls their movements." Just as Israelis have been able to build up their own country, he said, Palestinians "have a right to be a free people in their own land."
That his remarks were greeted by applause is likely a testament to the painstaking process of application students had to go through to be allowed to attend the address. In official Israel, in any case, the speech was not well received. Netanyahu released a curt statement thanking Obama for the "unreserved support for the state of Israel" the president pledged in his speech. Beyond that, he said merely that he too believes peace must guarantee security for Israeli citizens and "agrees with President Obama that we have a wonderful country."
Patching Up the Differences
Obama's address and Netanyahu's reaction to it represented perhaps the most honest moments of the president's Middle East visit thus far. It is the president's first trip to Israel in over four years in the White House and it has long been clear that there is very little love lost between the two leaders. Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Egypt soon after his first election left many in Israel feeling abandoned by Washington and last year, Netanyahu even publicly threw his support behind Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
The first part of Obama's visit seemed a clear effort to patch up some of those differences. The president was received at the airport by Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres and the country's entire cabinet. Almost immediately upon arrival, Obama began calling his host by his nickname "Bibi" and the two even spent a great deal of time whispering to each other during dinner on Thursday night at the presidential residence. Obama also said all the right things, saying that the US-Israeli alliance was eternal and emphasizing that all options remained on the table when it comes to Iran's nuclear program. The influential Middle East expert Jeffrey Goldberg even dubbed the trip "Operation Desert Schmooze."
It seems unlikely that Obama's visit will do much to advance the cause of peace in the region. The two sides at the moment remain so far apart that Netanyahu's skepticism of the president is only rivalled by that felt by the Palestinians, who feel that the White House hasn't done enough to help them secure statehood. "US policy is biased toward the Israeli position," Tayseer Khaled, a member of the PLO executive committee, told Reuters.
German editorialists are also losing their battle against cynicism on Friday when commenting on Obama's visit to the Middle East.
Conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"Obama's visit to Israel was an attempt to correct past mistakes he has made in the region. It was necessary that Obama expand his charm offensive (from the Muslim world) to include the Israelis, who have long seen this president as an opponent. And it looks as though he was successful. At the same time, though, Obama remained critical of Israeli settlements, but he also made it clear to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he would no longer accept the issue as an excuse for not participating in negotiations. It is a move which places Obama on neutral ground from where it becomes easier to make progress."
"Obama held a good speech in front of the Israeli students in Jerusalem. He delivered a few uncomfortable truths to the younger generation of Israelis and asked them to see things from the Palestinian perspective. It was an attempt to break through the peace-cynicism that many Israelis understandably hold on to. But he did so in a way that wasn't demanding so much as it was full of understanding and sympathy. Obama struck a tone that most Europeans have abandoned when it comes to Israel. One wishes that the president had made such advances to the Israelis four years ago after his speech (to the Muslim world) in Cairo. Had he done so, perhaps more would be possible than is currently the case in the Middle East, a region that threatens to plunge into chaos."
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Despite the tight bonds between Israel and the US, the primary goal of Washington's Middle East policy has always been that of bringing peace to the region. At one time, that was important to secure the country's access to fossil fuels, today it is essential for America's position in a world that is threatened by the antagonism between the West and Muslim countries."
"Israel's policies could become a serious threat to US interests in the region -- and America, no matter how deep the friendship may seem, will not allow that. Because the balance of power in the relationship is clear, there are only two possibilities. Either Israel adjusts and takes on the American position at least in part. Or the US will ultimately create more distance to its tiny ally. One could see signs of that even during this week's staged pageantry. The pinnacle of Obama's visit was not, after all, a speech before the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, as the leadership in Jerusalem had wished. Instead, Obama chose his own audience and presented his vision of peace to a group of university students -- not to politicians."
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Never before has there been a US presidential visit to Israel during which the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians played such a minor role. Obama, Netanyahu and Peres dutifully addressed the problem on Wednesday. But it was clear that issues such as the civil war in Syria, the nuclear program in Iran and the instability of the entire region as a result of the Arab Spring were vastly more important."
"One can understand that the Palestinians feel shunted aside. The sad truth is that whenever Palestinian violence subsides, efforts to solve the conflict lose their urgency."
"But the marginalization of the Palestinians is plainly short-sighted. Recent decades have shown that phases of relative calm are always broken by phases of violence and revolt. And given the unrest in the region, a new intifada is the last thing that the Middle East needs."
Center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Obama's attempt during his first term to force Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to abandon his settlement policies failed completely. The truth is: Making progress on the Middle East conflict is not among Obama's most pressing foreign policy priorities -- nor is it among those of other significant actors. The promise that his secretary of state will expend time and energy to help Israelis and Palestinians to come closer together is the minimum, practically a mere courtesy. Otherwise, apart from a few unresolved doubts, Obama has completely adopted Netanyahu's course."
-- Charles Hawley
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