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Barack Obama waves to the audience after delivering remarks at the Jerusalem Convention Center (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

 Have U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu forged a new deal on how to approach the Iranian nuclear crisis? After Obama took Israel by storm, Bibi declared:" I am absolutely convinced the President is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons!" IsraCast is of the view that the dazzling impact the U.S. President has made on Israeli leaders and people makes it difficult to arrive at a rational assessment of the visit's longer term outcome. However, it can be said most Israelis now believe that Barack Hussein Obama is a true friend of the Jewish state. 

 Obama + Netanyahu = Package Deal

Barack Obama talks with Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

 It was remarkable in every sense – President Barack Obama had a greater impact on Israel than any other world leader in living memory. During his three day visit, Obama touched on the heartstrings of Israelis and possibly worked out a joint U.S.-Israeli approach for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. Prime Minister Netanyahu had drawn an Israeli red line on stopping the Iranians by this spring or early summer, when they would acquire enough enriched uranium 'to break' for their first A-bomb. However, Obama estimates there is still a year or so to prevent Iran from producing an actual bomb. While Obama said: "There is still time to stop Iran by sanctions and diplomacy" he also believed there was 'little daylight' between his assessment and Netanyahu's position. Couple this with the PM's statement: "I am absolutely convinced the President is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons!" This sounds as if Barack and Bibi could agree: Israel will hold off attacking Iran this spring or early summer and will give the U.S. more time to try more diplomacy and sanctions on Tehran. In return, the U.S. President pledged to use military force if all else fails. (But while Obama was visiting Israel and Ramallah, Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned: " We will obliterate Tel and Haifa (Israel's two largest cities) if Iran were ever attacked)". If the Iranian leader dared to issue such a genocidal threat without his possessing nuclear weapons it is not hard to imagine what his approach would be if he ever gets them.

 To shore up Israel's confidence, the President pledged to extend the $3 billion in military aid the U.S. grants Israel annually. (Nearly all this money goes back to the U.S. in the form of American weapons purchases).

 Turkey-Israel reconciliation…

 Like the apparent U.S.-Israeli understanding on Iran, Obama also scripted a dramatic telephone call between Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Turkish counter-part Recep Erdogan. These two American allies have been feuding for three years now after a Turkish aid vessel, the Mavi Marmara, tried to run Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish activists with ties to a pro-Hamas organization were killed when they violently opposed the boarding by Israeli naval commandos, several of whom were stabbed and clubbed. (A U.N. enquiry subsequently ruled that Israel's blockade, designed to prevent the smuggling of rockets and weapons into Gaza, was legal). With Obama initiating the call on the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport, Netanyahu apologized directly to Erdogan for Israeli 'operational faults' that resulted in the Turkish deaths. Israel also agreed to pay compensation to the Turkish families of the victims. In return, the two former allies will return their ambassadors and restore normal relations. Moreover, Ankara will drop any legal prosecution of IDF soldiers who participated in the boarding operation. There is no question that Obama's resolving of the quarrel is of immense strategic importance to Israel in light of the melt down in Syria that also affects Turkey. In addition, Turkey's relations with Iran have also soured because of Tehran's massive support of the Assad regime in Syria. 

 Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

Mahmoud Abbas, Barack Obama (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

At the start of his first term, Obama’s focus on freezing Israeli settlement building backfired. It served to encourage Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to demand this as a prior condition for going to the table with Netanyahu. This was something Netanyahu could not accept after having already imposed a ten month freeze that went unanswered by the Palestinians. But now in Ramallah, Obama's message was loud and clear; he told Abbas to forget about the precondition of a new settlement freeze and negotiate with Netanyahu. This was the only way to implement the two- state solution of Palestine alongside Israel, aJewish state. Abbas and other Palestinian officials have categorically rejected the idea of Israel as a Jewish homeland. Moreover Obama corrected his previous statement that Israel was the product of the Holocaust and stressed its biblical origins dating back thousands of years. In short, too much time and effort was being wasted in talking about talks rather than the two sides sitting down to work. The U.S. would continue to oppose Palestinian attempts for statehood at the U.N. in other international forums because they had no chance of resolving the issue. Only direct negotiations could do that. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has remained in Jerusalem to carry on where Obama left off, and as an inducement the U.S. has unblocked $500 million in aid to the Palestinians that had been held up since Nov. 2012 when Abbas sought and received non-member observer status by the UN General Assembly, rather than negotiate with Israel. 

 Israel, I have your back!

 To a cheering audience of Israeli university students in Jerusalem, Obama pulled no punches: "Peace is possible with Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad who are your true partners!" He quoted former prime minister Ariel Sharon: 'It is not possible for Israel to remain a Jewish democratic state and to control all of the Land of Israel (West Bank) – we would be likely to lose it all!' Obama pointed to the demographic danger of Israel losing its Jewish majority. The creation of a viable Palestinian state was in Israel's interest. Moreover it was intolerable that settler violence against Palestinians went unpunished by Israeli authorities. Obama even went over Netanyahu's head by saying that political leaders never took risks for peace, unless pushed by the people. The surprising thing was that these Israeli students roundly applauded Obama time after time. He reciprocated by declaring: “I have your back!" and "Israel is not going anywhere!'.

Barack Obama tours the crypt containing the birthplace of Jesus at Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

 It was a masterful address that appeared to rekindle the peace camp that had swept Yitzak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert into power after they had expressed their readiness for compromise and 'territory for peace'. However these leaders were always turned down by Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas. In response, the Palestinians sent suicide bombers and salvos of rockets to kill and maim Israeli civilians. Obama has now offered the Palestinians and Israel another chance to compromise on the Land of Israel. Netanyahu has appointed Justice Minister Tzipi Livni as his negotiator. In the former Olmert government she negotiated with the Palestinians and proved she is dedicated to achieving a peace accord. If Far Right partners such as Naftali Bennett bolt the coalition over a peace deal, Opposition leader Shelli Yachimovitch of Labor has offered to carry it by joining the Netanyahu government. Obama has put the onus of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to start negotiating with Netanyahu under America's aegis.

 IsraCast is of the view that President Obama has wielded remarkable 'soft power' before and during his Middle East visit. Through quiet diplomatic channels, before flying in from Washington, Obama first prepared the groundwork for a package deal with Netanyahu on Iran, Turkey and the Palestinians. The final touches were added in Jerusalem, Ramallah and on the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport. Obama used his considerable rhetorical prowess to sell it to the Israeli public and also members of Netanyahu's government. Israelis and the Turks signed on; so far the Palestinians are giving it the cold shoulder.

David Essing

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