President Obama’s seemingly strained relationship with Israel over the past four years has been well documented. Since not visiting Israel during his trip to Egypt in 2009, Obama has struggled to win over the Israeli public. His speech in Egypt was viewed as pro-Arab and ignored Israel’s pre-Holocaust claims to Palestine. At one point, his approval rating in Israel was less than 10 percent.
Additionally, the personal relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama has been tense. From Obama and former French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s overheard complaints about the Israeli Prime Minister to Netanyahu’s criticisms of Obama at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, these two leaders have a frosty relationship at best.
However, this perception of American-Israeli relations under President Obama is not indicative of his true efforts to enhance the U.S.-Israel relationship. In fact, the AIPAC described Obama as the most pro-Israel American President ever and endorsed him over Governor Romney during the Presidential election in November. Obama has provided Israel with the most foreign aid of any American President. All former presidents have held off on signing military aid for Israel into law in hopes of using it for collateral in negotiations. In contrast, President Obama has signed all aid for Israel into law the first day it has arrived on his desk. He has also staunchly stood by Israel in numerous diplomatic situations such as levying the harshest sanctions in history against Iran and unilaterally opposing Palestinian attempts to declare statehood. So the goal of Obama’s first presidential visit to Israel was to win over a skeptical Israeli public and a difficult Prime Minister.
The results of the President’s charm offensive, experts say, have been successful. “The president captured the hearts of the Israeli people,” said Major General 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 Ehud Ya’ari, an Israeli journalist and political commentator, 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 the head of Israeli leadership 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.
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 empowered to achieve American objectives in the Middle East – at long last, with the Israeli people at his side.