The Presidential Visit: Mr. Obama Comes A-courtin’

Obama’s visit is a soap opera: he wants to proclaim his love, persuade Israelis to let bygones be bygones and entice them over to his side. It is a mirror image of his recent political tactics in the U.S. as well.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Thomas Friedman agitated many a news editor this week with his column “Mr. Obama goes to Israel.” The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is no longer a necessity for American policy makers, Friedman wrote, but more of a hobby, to indulge in whenever they’re in the mood. The President, Friedman wrote, is going to Israel as “a tourist.”

If this is the case, one nervous news editor asked me, what is the news? Where’s the drama? Don’t fret, I replied. You don’t need the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” to supply the thrills. The president’s visit, in and of itself, is riveting enough. Israel, after all, is a hotly-contested, emotion laden, domestic political issue in America, as everyone saw during the last election campaign and in the heated debate over Chuck Hagel’s appointment as Secretary of Defense.

And Obama isn’t really going as a tourist, I added; he’s going as a suitor. He’s comin’ a-courtin’.

Obama’s visit, in fact, is packed with all the ingredients necessary for a top-notch soap opera: there’s the suspense of his chemistry with Prime Minister Netanyahu, his onetime nemesis; there’s the novelty of the new Israeli government, which will hardly have time to look itself in the mirror before trotting out to Ben Gurion Airport to receive him; and, above all, there is the melodrama of a U.S. President asking for a second look, hoping to rekindle a fleeting sensation, telling the Israeli public how much he supports and admires their country, and asking for their trust, if not their love, in return.

As Bill Clinton told him, according to some sources, with Netanyahu at the helm, it is important for the U.S. President to try and have the Israeli public on your side. Of course, that’s easy for Clinton to say: the cool and calculated Obama lacks his predecessor’s natural warmth and the back-slapping spontaneity that Israelis were so enamored with.

Many Israelis, one should remember, were swept up in the initial enthusiasm generated by Obama’s historic election in 2008, but their ardor faded fast. As he himself told Israel’s Channel 2 on Thursday – and I’m paraphrasing here - Obama represents a liberal-leftist ideology that is the diametric opposite of the conservative outlook of the Israeli government, both outgoing and incoming. The U.S. Administration is Democratic, the Israeli coalition is wannabe-Republican, and it’s not so easy for the twain to meet.

During his four years in office, deep layers of suspicion and distrust have accumulated in the Israeli public’s perception of Obama: some of these are a result of widespread uncertainty about the president’s basic outlook on Israel, some a reaction to his obviously difficult relations with Netanyahu, some the inevitable product of anti-Obama incitement by right-wingers on both sides of the Atlantic. Obama’s who oppose Obama’s pursuit of a solution that entails withdrawal from territories and removal of settlements, and some, unfortunately, because of simple prejudice and racism.

Despite Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s persistent claims that Obama has bolstered Israel’s security capabilities in unprecedented ways, much of the Israeli public - though far from all - felt a cold wind blowing from the White House and responded in kind.

Under these suspicious circumstances, Obama’s every word and every gesture will be placed under a giant microscope: every deed will dissected, every misdeed - blown out of proportion, every misstep made to cost dearly. The White House tried to circumvent the known minefields, preferring, for example, to stay clear of the Knesset, where parliamentary hecklers could prove embarrassing, and to include potent and symbolic gestures like the wreath-laying at the tombs of Herzl and Rabin. The President’s advisers are hoping that Obama’s speech to students at Binyanei Hauma will be the tour de force that will melt even the coldest of anti-Obama hearts.

The new effort to court Israeli public opinion in many ways mirrors the President’s recent tactics on the domestic front in the U.S. Having realized the error of his first term ways, during which he ignored the need to maintain public support for his policies - especially his piece de resistance, the Affordable Care Act – and having allowed his rivals to take center stage, Obama has now carried out a 180 degree pivot and has launched what critics describe as the perpetual election campaign.

In the months since his decisive victory in the November elections, Obama has launched the kind of direct appeals – on the fiscal cliff and on the sequester – that he studiously avoided in his first four years in office. He has metamorphosed his campaign apparatus into the not-for-profit “Organizing for Action,” which will try to spur U.S. public opinion to support the President’s policies and to pressure reluctant Republicans to soften their opposition. And he has launched a so-called “charm offensive” against his Republican rivals which will, at best, convince them to cooperate on budget battles or, also at best – Netanyahu should pay attention here – will portray Obama as a moderate and reasonable politician who tried, in vain, to placate his implacable rivals.

Obama is coming to Israel because he wants to come to Israel. He is, ironically, fulfilling Mitt Romney’s famous campaign pledge to make Israel his first foreign destination as president. Obama hopes to convince Israeli leaders and public that he is serious in his intention to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and that they should let him do the job. He will proclaim his undying commitment to Israel’s security and wellbeing, but will stress that the ties between the two countries are so deep that they are not dependent on this or that relationship between the leaders or this or that criticism of one side or the other. And he will, despite it being a hobby, lay the groundwork for future moves on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, including, somewhere down the line, his own personal involvement.

It is within this context that he will launch a “charm offensive” on the Israeli public as well. It is a well thought out, long range strategy. Obama is hoping that if his courtship is successful, he may one day be able to convince Israelis to forget their first-round disappointment and – to paraphrase Jeremiah - to follow in his footsteps, if and when the time comes, “to a land not sown”.

Follow me on Twitter @Chemishalev

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks to reporters in the White House briefing room in Washington, Friday, March 1, 2013.Credit: AP

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