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.”
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.