How Obama won over the Israeli public
March 25th, 2013
07:04 AM ET

How Obama won over the Israeli public

By Gabriel Kohan and Mark Donig, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Gabriel Kohan and Mark Donig are Middle East policy analysts whose work has appeared in CNN, Foreign Policy, Forbes, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The views expressed in this piece are their own.

When U.S. President Barack Obama told a packed Jerusalem Convention Center on Thursday evening that “As a politician, I can promise…political leaders will never take risks unless people push them to take some risks,” it became clear for all to see that the president had not come primarily to “reset” ties with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as some pundits had claimed, but rather to connect with the Israeli people. By ensuring the Israeli public that America would always have Israel’s back on issues of shared security such as Iranian prevention, while also pushing for peace with the Palestinians, the early assessment is that President Obama used his bully pulpit abroad effectively. In so doing, he won the trust of a skeptical Israeli public necessary for the United States to advance its foreign policy goals in the Middle East.

President Obama embarked on this “reset” by “convinc[ing] most Israelis that he has a real feel for their national narrative,” argued Ehud Ya’ari, a senior Israeli journalist and political commentator for Israel’s Channel 2 news. In contrast to his speech to Egyptian youths in 2009 (in which some argued the president legitimized Israel’s existence only through the prism of the Holocaust), the president recognized Judaism’s 3,000 years historical roots in the land of Israel through both his speeches and through his deeply symbolic visits to the tomb of Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl and to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Equally critically, President Obama reaffirmed in his Thursday speech – in his own words and directly to the Israeli people – his commitment to ensuring Israel’s security, speaking of the “unbreakable” nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship and promising his audience that “America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.”

The results of the president’s charm offensive, experts say, have been superlative. “The president captured the hearts of the Israeli people,” said Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, head of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and former head of the Israeli Defense Force’s Military Intelligence Directorate. “He has become a new Clinton,” added Ya’ari, evoking the memory of a president who deftly managed to win over the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the Israeli population during his time in the White House. “[Obama] has indeed turned the page in the way Israelis perceive him.”

More from GPS: Obama's golden outreach opportunity

As the president’s statements on Iranian prevention and the necessity of renewed peace talks made clear, his connection with the Israeli public was aimed at bringing them closer to this administration’s position on issues of mutual interest to both the United States and Israel. This tactic of going over Israeli leadership’s head to win over popular sentiment is strikingly reminiscent of the appeals the president has made to American domestic audiences to pressure their Congressmen on issues such as the ongoing budget battles. In both cases, the goal has been to convince decision-makers that there will be a political cost for picking a battle with the president.

“When [Netanyahu] had conflict with [President] Clinton” during the Israeli leader’s first term in the mid-1990s, “he paid a high political price because Clinton was beloved in Israel,” says Natan Sachs, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.  Similarly, “the more Israelis trust [this] president, the less likely they are to support a rash Israeli decision on the military option [vis-à-vis Iran].”

While Sachs also cautions that the effects of public diplomacy on U.S.-Israeli shared security objectives are “real but limited,” the president’s trip also provided an opportune moment for Netanyahu to make gestures towards Turkey – and perhaps even the Palestinians – that the Israeli leader might have otherwise viewed as politically difficult. Indeed, Obama’s visit offered Netanyahu the political cover to apologize to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the Mavi Marmara incident, starting a reconciliation process that has been an American objective since 2010. With respect to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Ya’ari said, “Bibi will now feel more secure about public support for a new attempt to opt for a deal – maybe interim – with the Palestinians.”

At this critical juncture in the U.S.-Israel relationship, the Israeli people finally see President Obama as an ally who holds their best interests at heart. As the president returned to Washington on Saturday evening, he found himself significantly empowered to achieve American objectives in the Middle East – at long last, with the Israeli people at his side.

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soundoff (196 Responses)
  1. Shaykey Ground

    CNN = FRAUD, DECEPTION, AND LIES. They are the laughing stock of 'news' throughout the western world. They have lost all their credibility ....... it's over for them. They are just wasting their stockholders funds talking poop.

    March 25, 2013 at 10:06 pm | Reply
    • albert

      Then why on earth are you here?!?

      March 25, 2013 at 10:19 pm | Reply
  2. albert

    Birth Certificate – check
    Christian – check
    Supports Israel – check
    The anti-American / Make pretend Christian group otherwise known as the "Tea Party" Is running out of lies.

    March 25, 2013 at 10:16 pm | Reply
    • Mark

      Do you really believe that glockenschpiel? What a pathetic creature.

      March 25, 2013 at 10:33 pm | Reply
  3. Bill

    Obama is great at making speeches, but their is no substance or follow up to what he says. For instance, he made all of his wonderful speeches that won him a nobel, but the policies remained unchanged. He likes to travel across the United States giving speeches on how rich the GOP are, and how they will not compromise, but he has done nothing to bring the two parties together. He is a supposed to be a leader, but Congress has never been more divided. Obama was reelected stating that we do not need to make changes to Medicare, when he knows this is false. He was reelected stating that the rich should pay more, even though the top 10% already pay 76% of all income taxes. He is a populist presdient who just knows what people want to hear, whether it is or is not true. Talk means nothing.

    March 26, 2013 at 10:45 am | Reply
  4. dan

    He got a standing ovation when he addressed the room full of gradeschoolers, but his reception by the adults was less than exciting.

    March 26, 2013 at 11:10 am | Reply
  5. me

    I think more people have to realize that the Palestinian situation is for all intents and purposes the front line in the war against extremism in the Muslim world. Peace is very important globally on this front, although as some who live there may disagree, especially those in power on the Israeli or supposedly smart side. In order for the extremist to fought in all the regions of the Muslim world first the situation in Israel and Palestine will have to be set right. Going back to the 1967 peace accord boundaries. Once this is accomplished then the fight to root out extremist can go out full bore. There are millions and millions who would rather die then agree, that all religions can gather at one table with respect for each others believes. This is not a small feat, for there is a war going on right now on this earth and those who radicals there believers will not stop regardless of the lose of life. There those of us who live in free democratic societies, have not fully appreciated that it is war. It would be good if all the moderate Muslims would police themselves and deal with it, as there are many more moderate Muslims, close to 750 million. As they are not able to cage the tiger, it is left to the rest of the world to bear the cost.

    Sometimes war is necessary to obtain peace.

    Lest we forget.

    March 26, 2013 at 11:46 am | Reply
  6. Mo

    Absolute NONSENSE. No poll before or after Obama's visit show that Israelis trust Obama at all. More propaganda. What happened to CNN?

    March 27, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Reply
  7. dan

    He went to an elementary school and got lots of applause from the kids there, not so much from the adults that he jerked the rug out from under.

    April 1, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Reply
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