President Obama’s trip to Israel last week went a long way toward allaying the resentments accumulated over the four years in which he failed to visit America’s most important ally in the Middle East. Four simple words broke the ice: “We have your back.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded with equally important words of his own: On the issue of intelligence about Iran’s effort to acquire nuclear weapons capability, the prime minister said, “We share information and we have a common assessment.” He repeated that for emphasis: “ We have a common assessment.”
What Mr. Obama meant is that the U.S. commitment to guarantee the security of Israel is as strong as ever. Just as significant was the prime minister’s assurance, directed primarily at Israeli hawks, that there is no daylight between U.S. and Israeli leaders on the pressing question of Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear-weapons capability.
The statements underlined a new attitude by two men whose frosty relationship over the years has weakened the crucial U.S.-Israeli relationship. The sudden thaw is not so much a reassessment of policy as it is a recognition of political reality — both leaders are starting a new term in office and need each other. The change bodes well for an improved relationship that reaffirms the strong bonds between countries that share common values, a commitment to democracy, and a shared interest in forging a peaceful Middle East.
In that sense, Mr. Obama’s visit was a significant achievement, despite low expectations and even though there was no breakthrough on peace talks with the Palestinians and no significant new policy initiative. It helped to heal the rift between this White House and Israelis and sent a message to would-be foes that there is nothing to be gained in trying to drive a wedge between the United States and Israel.
Mr. Obama’s visit implicitly acknowledged that his policy toward Israel has lacked a vital ingredient — a personal commitment that can be achieved only by reaching out to Israelis on their own soil, addressing their concerns in person and reaffirming directly to them the U.S. commitment to peace and Israel’s security.
If the trip was strong on rhetoric and optics, it was also short on substance and policy. But even here there was important movement: While still criticizing Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank because it complicates peace efforts, President Obama also urged Palestinians not to demand a cessation of new construction as a precondition to peace talks.
In moving U.S. policy closer to the Israeli view, Mr. Obama was no doubt mindful that Palestinians have used the settlement issue as a convenient excuse to avoid engagement with the Israelis. An earlier moratorium on settlements by Prime Minister Netanyahu likewise failed to break the stalemate, deepening Israeli convictions that Palestinians are not interested in making compromises for peace.
Mr. Obama has a personal stake in the issue, as well. He does not want to be the president under whose watch a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict becomes impossible, and each passing day without progress on peace brings that unwanted prospect dangerously closer.
Without a strong U.S.-Israeli bond, however, no movement is possible. In reaffirming that bond, Mr. Obama hoped to give Israel the confidence to take risks for peace. The bond is not merely a political alliance of passing convenience, but rather a strong and lasting partnership.