The last time that a U.S. president visited Israel, I was spending my third year at rabbinical school, living in Jerusalem. The year was 2008, and a week prior to the president's arrival I remember sitting in taxi cabs, chatting away with the drivers (who I found sometimes had a better pulse on Israel society than many politicians) about U.S. President George W. Bush and the hope that his arrival would bring a jolt to the stalled negotiations with the Palestinians.
Throughout that academic year, everything was at a standstill. The drivers even joked with me that a new verb had been coined among Israelis, "lecandel", which referred to then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her inability (despite frequent trips) to generate progress. However, many Israelis did believe that Bush, who had a higher approval rating among Israelis than Americans did at the time, could use his influence to cause a breakthrough in negotiations.
Unfortunately, what I remember most about Bush’s visit is not the diplomatic impact he had, but the chaos that broke loose in Jerusalem upon his arrival. Despite being a welcome guest, for most Jerusalemites the president's visit was a terrible inconvenience: my family, for one, made the unfortunate mistake of coming to visit me that week, and found it physically impossible - with all the road blockades - to get to the Jerusalem central bus terminal, let alone out of my immediate neighborhood. The Jerusalem alleyways, which are ordinarily warm and familiar, were turned into mini maximum-security prison systems in which we were practically confined to our homes. Like other Jerusalemites, we hoped Bush’s visit would be worth the trouble.
Ultimately, what I do remember about Bush's visit was that it was exciting, but remained largely symbolic. U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit last week seems to be more of the same when it comes to impacting the peace process. As a U.S. citizen, I remain a supporter of our president, yet, from the moment he left the United States on his journey to Israel, I viewed it with serious scepticism, due to its lack of attention to the cause of peace. What I believe has made the president unpopular among many Israelis is not his occasional scuffles with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but the fact that he has for too long placed any hope of building peace on the back burner. He may have his reasons, yet even before the president left for the Middle East, the administration announced that his trip would not be about kickstarting peace negotiations, or about building bridges toward creating stability in an unstable region.
All of which begs the question: Why did he come?
If I had to think of an antonym to the phrase "lecandel," it would be the very word "shalom" (peace). When Diaspora Jews - or even Christians - make both the monetary and spiritual investment in travelling to Israel, they recognize that this trip is more than just symbolic. It is an opportunity acheive the peace and fullness – both of which in Hebrew are linked the word “shalom” - that can only come from being in the Land of Israel. Each time I visit Israel as a rabbi, I recall the words of labor Zionists who remarked that the goal of coming to Israel was not only to “livnot” (to build), but “lehibanot bah” (to be built up by it). As visitors, we must not only draw peace from the land, but somehow add to its peace as well.
A successful presidential trip to Israel aught to remove more roadblocks in the peace process than those set up for a motorcade. It is not enough to make impressive speeches or symbolic visits to Yad Vashem and the Dead Sea Scrolls; Obama will earn the Jewish people's trust and respect by reigniting a peace process that is necessary to Israel's long-term stability and survival as a Jewish state.
Certainly, his last-second tarmac negotiation to bring back together the old Turkey-Israel alliance, as well as his Convention Center speech, were positive developments. But he should not have gone to Israel without a real plan for Middle East peace. The flight from America to Israel is a long trip to make for symbolic gestures and state dinners.
After returning to the United States from the Middle East, I hope the president helps the Middle East from working toward shalom (peace) and shlaymut (fullness) - not only for himself and the Jewish people, but also for the entire region.
Otherwise – lecandel - it may be just another inconvenience.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. You can follow him on Twitter @danieldorsch.
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