When then-Senator Barack Obama launched his presidential bid in 2008, he knew he was in for a bumpy ride. The United States was at the apex of one of the toughest financial crises in its history, its army was bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq with no end in sight, and climate change was starting to rear its ugly head. A lot was broken and in need of urgent fixing.
Despite the busy agenda, Israel took a privileged place in the American public debate. Obama chose to deliver his first foreign policy speech as the Democratic Party's nominee at the AIPAC summit in Washington, in June of that year. In that speech, meant to refute widely held assumptions on his pro-Palestinian sentiments, Obama reiterated his commitment to Israel's security and prosperity, to the extent that the Palestinians and their sympathizers felt alienated. In a bid to further bolster his pro-Israel credentials, Obama visited thecountry just a few weeks later.
A year later, after being elected president, Obama traveled to Cairo, where he delivered a speech offering the Arab world a "new beginning" with the U.S., a conciliatory approach that constituted a radical break from his predecessor's bellicose Middle East policy. He appointed former Senator George Mitchell – credited with ushering the peace treaty in Northern Ireland – as his special Middle East envoy, and applied massive pressure on the Israeli and Palestinian governments to return to the negotiating table, which led to the unprecedented 10-month settlement freeze.
At the end of that period, with little to no achievements in his bag, Obama invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to a tripartite summit in Washington, in a last-ditch attempt to kick-start direct negotiations. These efforts were also frustrated, and were capped with Mitchell's resignation, in May 2011.
As he was gearing up for reelection, with his Israel dossier marred by discord with Netanyahu over how to tackle the Iranian nuclear program, Obama's Middle East policy was subjected to growing criticism, famously encapsulated by Republican candidate Mitt Romney's accusation that he had thrown Israel "under the bus." But America's Jews, many of them staunch supporters of Israel, remained loyal to Obama nonetheless.
In March 2013, Obama chose Israel and the Palestinian territories for the first official visit of his second term. Addressing a crowd in Jerusalem, Obama reiterated the United States' commitment to Israel and, at the same time, urged Israelis to pressure their leadership to move ahead in search of peace. His trip, followed by the tenacious efforts of newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry, has signified Obama's renewed interest in Middle East peacemaking.
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