President Obama's trip to the Middle East appears to have already produced a significant diplomatic breakthrough that few saw coming.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Friday apologized in a personal phone call to Turkey's prime minister for a deadly commando raid on a Turkish ship in 2010, in a sudden reconciliation between the two countries that was partly brokered by President Obama during his visit to Israel this week, according to Israeli, Turkish and American officials.
In the call, Mr. Netanyahu expressed regret for the raid, which took place as Israeli troops were enforcing an aid embargo on Gaza, and offered compensation, Turkish and Israeli officials said. And after years of holding out for a public apology for the deaths, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accepted Israel's gesture in the phone call.
As a result of the phone conversation, which President Obama reportedly participated in, diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey have been fully restored and that ambassadors would be reinstated.
As fascinating as this is, there's plenty we do not yet know, including what, if anything, Obama did to cajole Netanyahu.
But the fact that Obama's leadership helped broker this diplomacy is encouraging. As Noga Tarnopolsky noted, it's "no small thing to convince Israel to apologize for military activity."
Yesterday morning, the New York Daily News ran a curious headline on a story about President Obama's limo having mechanical difficulties in Israel. "Will Obama's historic Israel trip be overshadowed by gaffes?" the headline read.
I'm not sure what "gaffes" and car breakdowns have to do with one another, but it seemed as if some in media were prepared to write off the president's time in Israel as a missed political opportunity.
President Barack Obama penetrated the hearts of the Israeli people yesterday with his moving and compelling speech at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem.
His messages, which he directed at the young audience in the hall -- and to hundreds of thousands of households in Israel and the Palestinian Authority -- are much more significant than his polite per-protocol remarks at other events with politicians, primarily with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. [...]
Obama's goal in coming to Israel has been achieved: He won Israeli hearts and gave Israelis a sense of security, in the hope that now they will take charge and push the leadership toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Let us hope that Obama's call falls on attentive ears.
To be sure, Haaretz is not exactly Israel's equivalent of Fox News, but the larger point is that those who were a little too eager to write off Obama's trip probably should have waited another day -- his Jerusalem speech resonated in Israel in ways that were arguably hard to predict.
So, what's next?
Daniel Levy argued that the president "said all the right things in Jerusalem," but the road ahead is steep.
If Obama does decide to prioritize a peace deal during his second term, and that is a big if, an admittedly optimistic take could look like this: Secretary of State John Kerry might shuttle between the parties to discuss the parameters and even convene direct or trilateral talks. He will also court support from Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Obama in his Ramallah press conference with Abbas seemed to rule out a focus on incremental steps for their own sake (he might be tempted by the idea of a Palestinian state with interim borders, but on that too Netanyahu's best offer will fall short of providing an opening). Progress will be elusive; Netanyahu will offer little.
Eventually, if Kerry makes a convincing case, the president might conclude that a moment of choice has arrived and put forward his own terms of reference for convening an international conference or something similar. He mentioned his previous parameters during the Jerusalem speech, which included borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. Obama would then draw on the credit accrued during this visit to appeal directly to the Israeli public in the face of predictable recalcitrance from Netanyahu. The Israeli center might be impressed and might even generate a little pressure. Like I said, optimistic stuff.
And sadly, even this would be insufficient if several other pieces are not put in place. Key among those is that there will be consequences for Israel if it chooses rejectionism, if not from the United States then from Europe and others; that there is a politically empowered Palestinian side no longer weakened by its current divisions; and that a detailed and nuanced plan exists for engaging with Israel's myriad tribal political leaders, including those who were not in the room on this visit and in whom Obama has yet to take an interest, such as the Haredi and Palestinian-Arab parties. Big ifs indeed.
But, hey, yesterday was a start, and a reasonably good one at that.
When it comes to U.S. policy in the Middle East, President Obama's speech in Jerusalem today will probably be a subject of analysis, discussion, and scrutiny for quite a while.
It was significant enough when Obama made the case for "two states for two peoples," urging Israelis to put themselves in the shoes of Palestinians and recognize their "right to self-determination, their right to justice." But it was just as striking when he went off-script.
Breaking off from his prepared text, he said that he recently met with a group of young Palestinians.
"Talking to them, they weren't that different from my daughters, they weren't that different from your daughters or sons," he said.
"I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with these kids, they'd say, 'I want these kids to succeed, I want them to prosper, I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do,'" he added to applause.
There were, to be sure, plenty of cliches, but the president also used some provocative phrases, noting for example that "neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer" towards a lasting peace. Obama added:
"There will be differences about how to get there. There are going to be hard choices along the way. Arab states must adapt to a world that has changed. The days when they could condemn Israel to distract their people from a lack of opportunity, or government corruption or mismanagement -- those days need to be over. Now is the time for the Arab world to take steps toward normalizing relations with Israel.
"Meanwhile, Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security. Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable with real borders that have to be drawn."
This is rather direct language for anyone to use in the context of the Middle East, but for a U.S. president to say this in Israel -- to applause, no less -- was an important development.
Obama went out of his way to reinforce U.S. support for Israel and celebrate the alliance the president called "eternal." But he also challenged Israel: "You must create the change that you want to see."
"[T]oday, Israel is at a crossroads. It can be tempting to put aside the frustrations and sacrifices that come with the pursuit of peace, particularly when Iron Dome repels rockets, barriers keep out suicide bombers. There's so many other pressing issues that demand your attention. And I know that only Israelis can make the fundamental decisions about your country's future. I recognize that.
"I also know, by the way, that not everyone in this hall will agree with what I have to say about peace. I recognize that there are those who are not simply skeptical about peace, but question its underlying premise, have a different vision for Israel's future. And that's part of a democracy. That's part of the discourse between our two countries. I recognize that. But I also believe it's important to be open and honest, especially with your friends."
He added, "I believe that peace is the only path to true security. You have the opportunity to be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future."
The message wasn't subtle: fairness demands a Palestinian state, but this is just as much about Israel's own future.
If the goal was for Obama to lay the groundwork for a constructive way forward on the peace process, the speech did what it set out to do. That doesn't mean the president will necessarily be successful in getting the process to advance -- a well-received speech can only do so much -- but it does mean Obama pointed the way forward.
For four years, many of President Obama's Republican critics have condemned the White House for being insufficiently supportive of Israel. Indeed, throughout the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney and his allies routinely attacked the president on this, running ads complaining about Obama and Israel, even accusing the president of throwing Israel "under the bus."
Barack Obama will receive one of Israel's most prestigious honours during his upcoming visit to the Middle East. On Monday, the office of the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, announced that Obama will be given the presidential medal of distinction in March.
A statement said that the honour recognised Obama's "unique and significant contribution to strengthening the State of Israel and the security of its citizens".
Peres' statement added, "Barack Obama is a true friend of the State of Israel, and has been since the beginning of his public life."
After deadly violence throughout Gaza overnight, and a bus explosion in Tel Aviv that injured 19 people, there were fears that diplomatic progress in Israel would remain elusive, but this afternoon, Israel and Hamas reached a cease-fire agreement.
Israel and Hamas have agreed to a cease-fire, the Egyptian foreign minister said Wednesday, ending eight days of fighting that killed more than 140 Palestinians and five Israelis.
The cease-fire is set to start at 9 p.m. Cairo time (2 p.m. ET), Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr announced in a news conference alongside visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"The United States welcomes the agreement today for the cease-fire in Gaza," Clinton said, adding that Egypt's new government was exerting responsibility and leadership in the region. "This is a critical moment for the region," she said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed the agreement, but did not strike an optimistic tone about the near future. In a statement, Netanyahu said he'd spoken with President Obama and "responded positively to his recommendation to give a chance to the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire and to allow an opportunity to stabilize the situation and to calm it down before there is a need to use much greater force."
For the months leading up to the election, it was fairly common to hear Sheldon Adelson and other critics of President Obama predict that the White House has already abandoned Israel, and would be even more aggressive on this front if given a second term. Whether Republicans actually believed this or not is unclear, but it was part of a concerted effort to drive a wedge between the president and Jewish voters.
The rhetoric was, however, completely wrong. Jeffrey Goldberg noted today that Obama has already proven these critics "utterly and completely wrong." Zeke Miller is reporting along the same lines.
The test came fast, when Israeli reacted to a drumbeat of missile strikes by turning its firepower on the Gaza Strip within days of the election. And the American reaction has, so far, surprised those who expected a post-election pivot. And with the region hoping Hillary Clinton's visit will bring a ceasefire, Israelis have so far had few complaints.
"If funding iron dome is Obama's way of throwing Israel under the bus, I am praying he will throw us under a train," tweeted Israeli reporter Barak Ravid, who writes for the center-left newspaper Haaretz, referring to the American-backed missile defense system.
An Israeli official close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Obama administration's response to the conflict "has been everything we could ever hope for."
The Republican Jewish Coalition has been reduced to arguing that Obama will eventually abandon Israel, even if reality shows it hasn't happened yet, and isn't happening now. The group's executive director, Matt Brooks, said we'll have to wait "until the second term is over."
Yes, and the NRA is equally confident that Obama really will be coming for our guns any day now.
Update: I'd hoped this was obvious, but in case there's any confusion, this item was about the inaccuracies of far-right rhetoric, not the relative merits of competing policies. Every day for months, conservatives aggressively pushed bold predictions about U.S. foreign policy after the election, and my point here is to highlight the fact that those predictions were completely wrong. There's obviously room for a spirited debate over the merits of U.S. policy in Israel, and there is no hidden subtext in this post suggesting anything to the contrary.
International reactions to President Obama's re-election were quite positive -- there was a "sigh of relief" for many abroad -- but of particular interest was this awkward video of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made an appearance yesterday with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
The Washington Post reported that the meeting was "a touch uncomfortable," since Netanyahu was "not exactly rooting for the president's reelection, and there's real concern in Israel that this could cost Netanyahu political support or even damage the alliance so important to Israel's security."
Over the past several years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has on several occasions confronted or even undercut President Obama, taking his message directly to the Israel-friendly United States Congress, challenging Mr. Obama's appeal to the Arab world, and seeming this fall to support his opponent, Mitt Romney.
Mr. Netanyahu woke up Wednesday to find not only that his Republican friend had lost, but also that many Israelis were questioning whether he had risked their collective relationship with Washington.
"This has not been a very good morning for Netanyahu," a deputy prime minister, Eli Yishai of the religious Shas Party, told journalists in Eilat.
The report added that the Israeli prime minister is now rushing "to repair the relationship," while Ehud Olmert pokes the wound, asking publicly, "Given what Netanyahu had done these recent months, the question is: Does our prime minister still have a friend in the White House?"
In his first television ad in the wake of the three debates, President Obama unveiled a minute-long spot, highlighting his first-term accomplishments and noting several second-term goals. It's a positive, issue-focused ad, which mentions his opponent only in passing.
In his first television ad in the wake of the three debates, Mitt Romney is going in a different direction.
For those who can't watch clips online, the 30-second spot is yet another attack ad, accusing Obama of having gone on an "apology tour" and failing to visit Israel in his first term.
In some ways, I suppose it's fitting. Romney, before even launching his 2012 presidential campaign, based much of his national ambitions on the "apology tour" -- it was the basis for the title of his 2007 "memoir" -- and he included the falsehood in his kick-off speech in June 2011. It stands to reason, then, that the same lie would provide a bookend, bringing the Republican's ridiculous smear full circle.
But for those who still care about facts and reality, Romney really is lying. Obama has never apologized for America. The Republican knows this, but keeps repeating the claim anyway, hoping voters won't know the difference.
And what about Obama not having visited Israel in his first term?
As we talked about in July, the attack at least has the benefit of being partially accurate -- Obama visited Israel as a candidate, but has not been back during his first term. If Republicans choose to find that outrageous, their complaints are grounded in fact.
The problem, however, is the selective nature of their disgust. George W. Bush didn't visit Israel at any point during his first term, and neither did Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush didn't travel to Israel during their respective terms in office at all.
Is there any record of Romney ever condemning any of these other presidents for the same reason? Nope.
Moreover, Obama did visit Israel as a candidate, and as he explained last night, he did so the right way.
"You know, if we're going to talk about trips that we've taken, you know, when I was a candidate for office, first trip I took was to visit our troops. And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors, I didn't attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.
"And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas. And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms, and I was reminded of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles.
"So that's how I've used my travels when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region."
When Romney visited Israel over the summer, he brought donors, held a fundraiser, brought his teleprompter, and made every effort to make his trip as campaign-oriented as humanly possible.
Mitt Romney, speaking in Virginia today, on the Middle East;
"I know the president hopes for a safer, freer, and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope. But hope is not a strategy."
Mitt Romney, speaking to donors in Boca in May, on the Middle East:
"[S]o what you do is, you say, you move things along the best way you can. You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem ... and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it."
Hmm. It's almost as if what Romney says in private, when he thinks the public won't hear him, differs from what he says in public.
Indeed, towards the end of today's speech, Romney went on to say, "I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel. On this vital issue, the president has failed, and what should be a negotiation process has devolved into a series of heated disputes at the United Nations. In this old conflict, as in every challenge we face in the Middle East, only a new president will bring the chance to begin anew."
Now, as a substantive matter, the notion that "a new president" who has no experience in or working understanding of foreign affairs will suddenly transform the peace process is pretty silly, but there's another, more obvious problem.
We know Romney doesn't mean what he's saying. We know this, of course, because Romney's said so.
The "47 percent" video didn't leave any ambiguities in this area. The Republican spoke of "the Palestinians" as a united bloc of one mindset, arguing, "I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say there's just no way."
Romney then added he intends to show no leadership in this area at all, "hoping" -- remember, "hope is not a strategy" -- that someone other than the United States will somehow take the lead. If elected, "recommit America" to anything, except for letting others worry about the dispute after he "kicks the ball down the field."
The FBI probed a late-night swim in the Sea of Galilee that involved drinking, numerous GOP freshmen lawmakers, top leadership staff -- and one nude member of Congress, according to more than a dozen sources, including eyewitnesses.
During a fact-finding congressional trip to the Holy Land last summer, Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) took off his clothes and jumped into the sea, joining a number of members, their families and GOP staff during a night out in Israel, the sources told POLITICO. Other participants, including the daughter of another congressman, swam fully clothed while some lawmakers partially disrobed. More than 20 people took part in the late-night dip in the sea, according to sources who took part in the trip.
"A year ago, my wife, Brooke, and I joined colleagues for dinner at the Sea of Galilee in Israel. After dinner I followed some Members of Congress in a spontaneous and very brief dive into the sea and regrettably I jumped into the water without a swimsuit," Yoder said in a statement to POLITICO.
Other swimmers included Reps. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.), Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), and Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.). Explanations for the swim varied, but "several privately admitted that alcohol may have played a role in why some of those present decided to jump in."
Ya don't say.
In fairness to the raucous Republicans, it's not at all clear why the FBI looked into this. Unless there's reason to believe crimes were committed -- and there's not much in the article that points in that direction -- it's hard to understand why the FBI would care. Perhaps there are relevant details we don't yet know.
Regardless, I'm struck by the larger context. The incident was in August 2011, shortly after these same Republican lawmakers, for the first time in American history, held the full faith and credit of the United States hostage, rattling markets, undermining the economy, and causing a downgrade in our debt rating. They were in Israel, where Jesus is said to have walked on water -- this gives "kiss my ass, this is a holy site" a whole new meaning -- and as part of an official delegation, they were representing all of us, traveling on our dime.
And they nevertheless thought it'd be a good idea to start partying a little too hard.
For the record, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was reportedly the senior most GOP lawmaker in Israel on the trip, and "rebuked the 30 lawmakers the morning after" the incident. It's unclear, however, if any of the offending members were punished outside of the scolding.
Mitt Romney made his ignominious trip abroad just a little worse the other day, appearing at an Israeli fundraiser where he argued Palestinians have a weaker economy because of its "culture." As part of a walk-back, Romney aides assured us he thinks Mexicans and Ecuadorians are inferior, too.
Yesterday, the Republican candidate was a little more forceful in his backpedaling, insisting that he "did not speak about the Palestinian culture" and doesn't "intend" to include this in his campaign's message. This was apparently intended to put the matter to rest, but there were a couple of problems. For one thing, the transcript of Romney's remarks in Jerusalem proved this new claim isn't true.
For another, the Republican base liked the original line, because they believes Palestinian culture really is disgraceful. By walking back his borderline-racist comments, Romney was cutting off his own defenders at the knees.
So, last night, feeling the need to further clean up his own mess, Romney once again returned to the subject, publishing a piece at National Review that doubled down on the original cultural argument that Romney falsely claimed he never made. The headline read, "Culture does matter."
The American economy is fueled by freedom. Free people and their free enterprises are what drive our economic vitality. [...]
The linkage between freedom and economic development has a universal applicability. One only has to look at the contrast between East and West Germany, and between North and South Korea for the starkest demonstrations of the meaning of freedom and the absence of freedom.
I suppose this is a nice try, but (a) if "freedom" is responsible for strong economies, I'd love to hear Romney explain the gross domestic products of China and Saudi Arabia; and (b) he's responding to criticism by deliberately avoiding the underlying point. Yes, communism doesn't work, but the controversy erupted because he was talking about Palestinian poverty, driven by the restrictions imposed by Israeli officials -- a point the National Review piece ignores.
Regardless, I don't imagine the Romney campaign is pleased that the candidate's odd thoughts on anthropology have become an important topic of conversation.
With the right eager to drive a wedge between President Obama and Jewish voters, yesterday's comments from Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, followed soon after by comments by Israeli President Shimon Peres, are music to the campaign's ears.
I suspect this exchange, between Ehud Barak and CNN's Wolf Blitzer, will be put to great use by the Obama campaign in the fall.
BLITZER: You've studied U.S.-Israeli relations over many years. How would you describe the relationship today?
BARAK: I think that from my point of view as defense minister they are extremely good, extremely deep and profound. I can see long years, administrations of both sides of the political aisle deeply supporting the state of Israel, and I believe that reflects the profound feelings among the American people. But I should tell you honestly that this administration under President Obama is doing, in regard to our security, more than anything that I can remember in the past.
BLITZER: More than any other president? LBJ, Bill Clinton, or George W. Bush?
BARAK: Yeah, in terms of the support for our security, the cooperation of our intelligence, the sharing of thoughts in a very open way even when there are differences, which are not simple sometimes, I found their support for our defense very stable.
That's clearly not the impression Republicans would prefer voters to have.
On a related note, Media Matters highlighted another key talking point being pushed by the right this week: Obama deserves to be condemned for not having visited Israel during his first term.
The argument, however, is burdened by a fairly significant flaw.
During an appearance on Fox News' Special Report, Fox contributor and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol praised Romney's recent visit to Israel while noting that "President Obama has not been in Israel as president of the United States." Fox's Sean Hannity similarly said that it is an "alarming fact that after nearly four years in office, President Obama has yet to visit our closest ally in the Middle East in what is now a very troubling time."
Beth Myers, a top Romney aide, also told reporters recently that it's "pretty amazing" Obama hasn't visited Israel.
The attack at least has the benefit of being partially accurate -- Obama visited Israel as a candidate, but has not been back during his first term. If Republicans choose to find that outrageous, their complaints are grounded in fact.
The problem, however, is the selective nature of their disgust. George W. Bush didn't visit Israel at any point during his first term, and neither did Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush didn't travel to Israel during their respective terms in office at all.
Did the right find this "alarming," too? I looked to see if Kristol, Hannity, or Myers ever criticized modern Republican presidents for their failure to visit Israel at this point in their terms and couldn't find anything.