Obama's magic won't charm Israelis

Ran Dagoni

President Barack Obama will find it difficult to pull a large part of Israelis away from their sense of relative physical security.

For weeks, the White House has been lowering expectations that Obama's visit was not intended to shove down the Israeli government's throat a new peace plan, or to browbeat it in the hope that it will offer the Palestinians confidence building measures. US administration spokesman have repeatedly said that the President isn't going to Jerusalem to sit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, but to speak with the Israeli people face to face. In other words, Obama will face the 1,000 people who succeeded in obtaining a ticket to his speech to the nation on Thursday and to the millions of people who will watch the speech on television.

As Obama learned during his first four-year term in the White House, harsh and aggressive pressure on the Israeli government, or at least the previous one, was like biting a lemon - bitter and with little juice. The US administration now hopes to reach the Israeli government from below, through the people. The thinking is that if the Israeli public can go out onto the streets to protest the price of cottage cheese, it may be possible to turn the yearning for peace among Israelis into something more robust and popular than an elitist reserve of Meretz, and to create an amorphous polity headed by new Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni. The US administration hopes that Obama's historic speech in Jerusalem can launch such a process.

The critics say that this approach relies on idealism and naiveté, but Obama believes in the magic of speeches, especially his own, and the fact that his oratory performances helped him reach the White House (twice), and gave a push to the Arab Spring. In the famous speech at Cairo University in 2009, at the height of the ferment in Egypt, Obama said that governments should reflect the will of the people. This is also the source of the criticism that he stabbed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, an old US ally, in the back.

The White House's problem is that that speech was also seen as stabbing Israel in the back. Four days before his visit to Israel, the Cairo speech has been pulled from the archives and ambushed Obama on his way to Binanyei Ha'Uma. Last week, "Atlantic" national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg said that one of the reasons for the trip was to correct the impression, which the President had created in his Cairo speech, that he didn't fully understand the rationale for Israel's existence.

Obama will have no problem with Netanyahu

Goldberg writes that, in the 2009 Cairo speech, Obama said, "The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable." He went on to explicitly mention the US's unbreakable bond with Israel, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, but this was not grasped in Israel. Goldberg quotes Shalom Hartman Institute research fellow Yossi Klein Halevi response to the speech, "The Holocaust doesn't explain why we're here. The Holocaust explains why we fight as fiercely as we do to stay here, but it doesn't explain our rootedness."

Obama will have no problem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They think alike on Iran, despite minor tactical disagreements. The Palestinians annoy US President Barack Obama and his administration more than the Israelis. The president knows that Israel is an island of stability and democracy in the bubbling mire of Islamic radicalism. Obama's stumbling block in Israel will be Israelis, the main target of this trip. First, he will have to overcome his negligible popularity in the country. A poll by Hebrew daily "Ma'ariv" and Maagar Mochot last week found that 38% of Israelis believe that Obama has been hostile to Israel, and 14% said that he has been indifferent.

Secondly, Obama seems to have missed the boat. He will find it difficult to pull a large part of the audience from its sense of relative physical security. Iron Dome and the separation fence have surrounded Israel in a isolating cotton wool and anesthetized the feeling of an existential threat. The urge to reach a settlement with the Palestinians has shriveled. The meteoric rise of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett point to Israel's turn inward. Internal problems top the agenda, and the Palestinians are less interesting. Obama's personal magnetism will win accolades at Binyanei Ha'Uma Convention Center, but Jerusalem will not be Cairo. There will no earthquake.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on March 19, 2013

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2013

עוד דעות של Ran Dagoni, Washington
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