Obama charms Israel but chills Palestinians

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 22, 2013 

Mideast Israel Palestinians Obama

President Barack Obama, right, walks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, during a welcoming ceremony prior to their meeting, in the West Bank city of Ramallah,

MAJDI MOHAMMED — AP

— Across Israel Friday, news stations aired a special live broadcast of President Barack Obama’s last day in the Jewish state with a headline summarizing his visit: “US President wins our hearts and minds.”

Television hyperbole aside, Obama did appear to succeed at laying the groundwork to turn around his image in the country from aloof to friend. Over three busy days, he did it in a deliberate and stage-managed effort that ranged from the symbolic – repeated bows to Israel’s Jewish history – to the substantive – a shift of tone toward Israel on a key issue with the Palestinians.

Capping it off, he helped engineer a phone call between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday that offered a first step toward re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries, a major development for an increasingly isolated Israel.

The call, made from an airport trailer just as Obama was about to leave Israel, came nearly three years after an Israeli naval raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla left nine Turkish nationals dead. Israeli officials initially refused to apologize for the incident, and Turkey broke off diplomatic ties.

On Friday, however, with Obama standing by, Netanyahu apologized for the incident and admitted there had been "operational failures." The two countries agreed to begin normalizing relations in a move that could help coordinate a regional response to the spillover from Syria’s ongoing civil war. Obama said later in Jordan that he’d been working on the two leaders for two years.

"There are obviously going to still be some significant disagreements,” Obama said. “But they also have a wide range of shared interests, and they both happen to be extraordinarily strong partners and friends of ours.”

“Now Israel knows it has a friend in the White House,” said Udi Segel, an Israeli diplomatic analyst for Channel Two Hebrew News. “For any critics that were saying that Obama’s visit was all hugs and smiles and empty words, the phone call showed otherwise.”

The visit was Obama’s first as president, and he poured on the charm with the Israeli people, who previously had given him poor marks in polls, and with Netanyahu, with whom he had had a prickly relationship. The charm offensive to Israel came with a price, though. For every friend Obama appeared to gain among Jewish Israelis, he appeared to lose one among Palestinians, especially in the West Bank, where activists and officials complained the president treated them as an afterthought. While he delivered a speech to the Israeli people in Jerusalem, for example, he did not speak to the public in the West Bank.

“I can understand that Palestinians felt disappointed in Obama, I really can. But this trip was not aimed towards them, it was about the Israeli public,” said Zvi Rafiah, a former Israeli diplomat to the U.S. and commentator on US-Israeli relations. From an Israeli perspective, “this was a successful visit, the most successful visit a U.S. president could have. For those people in Israel who didn’t like him before, this was a visit to prove that they had been wrong, and that Obama is, first and foremost, a friend to Israel.”

Obama, who spoke extensively about Israel’s right to defend itself and the security needs of the Jewish state, made sure that he was photographed in some of Jerusalem’s most important sites Friday, including the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, and the Israel national cemetery, where he lay stones at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the Zionist visionary who died more than four decades before the 1948 founding of Israel, and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was shot dead in 1995 by a Jewish gunman opposed to his peace moves with the Palestinians.

“It might be a little cheesy, but that kind of stuff is really important to Israelis,” said Sam Mitzner, a 32-year-old American immigrant to Israel. “I never voted for him – mostly because I bought the argument that he was not pro-Israel – but I was really impressed with him on this trip. I would go so far as to say that I regret not voting for him.”

Chaim Rimon, a 24-year-old student from Tel Aviv University, said that he felt like Obama’s speech to the Israeli people “could have been written by an Israeli.” His girlfriend, Tal Shamzi, also a student at Tel Aviv University, added, “All of us are a bit in love with him now.”

Not all the students, however, were won over by Obama’s glowing remarks about Israel.

Midway through the speech, Obama was interrupted by a heckler who yelled out, “Do you really come here for peace, or to give Israel more weapons to kill and destroy the Palestinian people? . . . There are Palestinians in this room. This state must be for all its citizens, not the state of the Jewish people.”

Saher Jamhour, a 19-year-old student from Qassim College in northern Israel, said that as a non-Jewish resident of Israel, she felt ignored by Obama’s speech.

“We are angry and we should be angry. He came here but didn’t say anything about us, we were invisible to him,” she said, citing the moment when Obama spoke about Israel as a Jewish, democratic state. “What about the Palestinians, like me, who have Israeli citizenship? Do we not deserve Obama’s attention?”

Her words were echoed by many in the Palestinian territories, who said that the president had come across as a “friend of Israel, not of Palestine.”

“The disappointment with Obama cuts even deeper because at first we were so optimistic that his message of hope and change would apply for us, too,” said Asmi Hakan, a 32-year-old store owner in downtown Ramallah. “We celebrated Obama as a man who would finally get us our own state, and now we see he’s never going to do that. I would say he’s exactly like Bush, but I think he might be even worse.”

Writing in the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam, columnist Hani Awkal asked, “What did Obama do? He repeated his previous positions and announced them in Israel and Palestine. He therefore does not oppose a Palestinian state but he did not say how such a state can be established. Furthermore, he did not demand from Israel that it stops settlement activity in order to have successful negotiations.”

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: sfrenkel@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @sheeraf

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