Obama’s tour a diplomatic slam-dunk
Patty Culhane is Al Jazeera’s White House Correspondent. She can be reached at @PattyCulhane.
The US president has left the country of Jordan. I’m writing this in the hour after his departure. Selfishly, it is the time when the White House press corps takes a collective deep breath. These foreign trips are amazing to be a part of, but the man keeps up a busy schedule when he’s away from home. It’s like being back on the campaign trial, with the jet lag.
In the days before we all flew out of Washington, his staff spent much of the time telling us not to expect any news on this trip. It was just going to be symbolic message sending. It didn’t seem, at the time, like the classic game of downplaying expectations. As it turns out, it was.
Without anyone hearing even a whisper, the president was pushing the Israeli prime minister to apologise to Turkey for the raid on the flotilla that took the lives of nine activists who were trying to end the blockade of the Gaza Strip. It has been almost three years since the incident. The tension between the two important American allies had not been discussed in the US for the last two. But they surprised us, and in the end changed the conversation at the tail of the trip.
You could almost hear the delete button being hit as the inevitable headlines of “nothing gained” turned into “diplomatic win for the president”.
I’m not a headline writer; they probably would come up with something far more clever. It is being seen as a foreign policy victory for Obama, an area in that his administration has struggled to find honest success. We were told from the beginning that we should not expect any movement on the Middle East peace process. Again, I have to say they undersold it.
I was in the occupied West Bank as the president dismissed the need for an Israeli settlement freeze. If the reaction of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, was any indication, the peace process moved – just in the other direction. When Obama won his first election he began thinking he could force the parties to make peace, by forcing Israel to stop building illegal settlements. He got a moratorium, but that didn’t last and that was the last we heard of the so called “peace process”.
The president no longer thinks settlements should stop for negotiations to begin. The problem is, you just can’t “unsay” it. The Palestinian people heard him make the demand and they think he looked weak. What will they think of their own leader if he follows suit?
Obama repeatedly described his trip as “homework”. He was on a kind of listening tour. He didn’t have to say anything. I could see what his plan is just by watching him and listening to his carefully chosen words. Here is what I think: the president will push for peace through his Secretary of State John Kerry. If it fails again, it will be Kerry’s fault. If it succeeds it will be the president’s legacy.
I believe this was America’s first move. The constant stream of reassuring words, love and respect for Israel and its people was their attempt to change the president’s poll numbers in Israel. He learned the lesson of former president Bill Clinton: if they love you, they will hear you. What he couldn’t achieve with demands, he will now try to accomplish with persuasion.
President Obama did it in an interesting way this week, making the moral argument in a speech to young Israelis in Jerusalem, not before a political venue like the Knesset. He was also going around the Israeli leadership much like he’s tried to do with his own Congress. That strategy presumably makes the people want peace and they can force their leaders to act.
It is a common story repeated in this region, the plight of the Palestinian people. Their struggles and the restrictions under which they try to live their lives are common knowledge in this region and much of the world. That is not the case in the United States, where polls suggest the vast majority of Americans have sympathy for the Israelis and just nine percent for the Palestinian people.
For the US president to describe anything about the occupation was unusual to say the least. That is much of the reason why the Israeli lobby is so influential in Washington: they have the American people on their side. If the president continues to educate his electorate, that could change.
All of this subtext will not change how the Palestinian people feel. I was struck in my conversations here by the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. Many feel betrayed by this president and his country. The last time he tried to forge a peace deal, he began by making the Israelis angry and the Palestinians hopeful.
It appears this time around, he’s doing the reverse and hoping for a different outcome.