President Obama presses reset. Now what?

President Obama presses reset. Now what?

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

JERUSALEM — As time passes one is able to evaluate more clearly the Obama visit to Israel. Overall it seems that the visit produced a much more favorable result than had been anticipated.

President Obama was the beneficiary of brilliant staffing, excellent personal preparation, and a rousing, campaign-style performance. From the perfectly chosen Hebrew comments he made, to the nuanced way in which he delivered his message, Obama appeared determined to put the personal pettiness of previous exchanges behind him. When the president leaves the Israel Museum saying that he wants to see the special Herod exhibition — in addition to viewing the Dead Sea Scrolls — it shows that somebody was really doing his/her job. When he can banter with all levels of Israeli political types and demonstrate subtleties of Jewish law and lore, he leaves a country truly impressed — not only by what he knew, but that he cared to show Israelis a side beyond political and strategic niceties. 

Obama also showed Prime Minster Netanyahu that he understood — like Netanyahu in his recent visits to the United States — that he too could direct a message to the Israeli people by going over the heads of government officials and politicians.

There are segments of the Israeli population who do not want to accept the results of the visit. These include the many American olim who voted for Romney and who live in some of the West Bank settlements, and similarly disposed Americans who were in Israel to celebrate Passover.  For them, the disruptions created by the visit during the week before the holiday was proof of the president’s insensitivity to Jewish religious rhythms. 

After the trip, the president faces a challenge he may not be prepared to address for a range of political reasons. In his carefully crafted and articulated presentations before various Israeli audiences, Obama made his support for Israel so clear that it undoubtedly disturbed many Arab leaders. But he also warned Israelis of what might develop if they don’t activate the peace process. Four years after his Cairo speech and all that has transpired in the region, is Obama prepared to lay down similar challenges before the Arab nations? Can and will he present as cogent and blunt a message to the Muslim world, much of which remains fundamentally unwilling to accept Israel’s legitimate place in the region?

The Cairo speech was as detailed and frank as his March 21 talk in Jerusalem. One can only imagine what he might have achieved — at least between the Palestinians and Israel — if he had visited Israel right after Cairo.

The results of the visit may not be evident for some time to come. How Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel follow up will reveal much about the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Meanwhile, even a strong critic like Moshe Arens conceded the visit may have been transforming. As he stated, “No doubt there has been a reset in the U.S.-Israel relationship,” the seasoned Likudnik wrote in Ha’aretz. “Obama’s accolades for Israel during his visit were music to the ears of most Israelis.”

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