Obama’s visit to Israel: Low risk and no effect

It doesn’t seem like the president’s visit to Israel is generating much excitement, but even if it did – political changes are unlikely to follow.

It’s anyone’s guess why President Obama arrived on an official visit to Israel with no important event attached to it, no major meetings and no issues that require his presence. Obama, Netanyahu and President Abbas could have met anywhere in the world, and since no negotiations are taking place, there is not much for the three leaders to discuss. The same probably goes for the coordination on the Iranian and Syrian issues – those take place on lower levels, and the exchange of messages between the leaders could have taken place over the phone.

Some say that the visit is the paying of a debt by the president to his Jewish supporters, or an effort to block any attempt to make Obama seem anti-Israel. Both explanations sound logical. The Israeli press claims that the president wants “to win over Israelis’ hearts,’’ after his first term in office was characterized by a rift between the two administrations. But since the visit serves only public relation purposes, it failed to attract Israelis’ attention. The media hype is misleading – newspapers and TV will always dedicate themselves to such big events – but my sense is that most people are indifferent to the visit. I can’t really prove this, but most of the people I’ve talked to – both journalists and non-journalists – are unmoved and even cynical. The articles I’ve read about the visit had a relatively low number of comments, and not that many shares. I also didn’t see other signs of excitement, such as a fight over media accreditations and tickets to the speech Obama is going to give.

It seems like one of those events – and every journalist knows them all too well – where the media and the political elite generate a lot of noise but the public simply isn’t there. A couple of days ago, a journalist visiting Israel asked me to recommend a public spot where he could watch Obama’s speech with Israelis. I couldn’t think of one – and I realized that I haven’t seen even a single invitation by anyone – from a bar to a random person – to see the much-anticipated event in a group. Some pre-Twitter media studies claimed that one of the signs of major media events is the tendency of people to gather and watch it together in groups – think of sports or election nights. Obama’s speech clearly isn’t generating that kind of interest, but maybe by tomorrow some excitement will pick up.

UPDATE: the screening in Rabin Sq. will take place after all. here is the event page on Facebook. I might live tweet from there (@nsheizaf)

Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Obama and Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren at Ben Gurion airport, March 20 2013 (photo: Government Press Office)
Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Obama and Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren at Ben Gurion airport, March 20 2013 (photo: Government Press Office)

Which brings us back to the question of purpose of his visit. Obviously, winning the hearts of Israelis is not an end on its own, certainly for a man who can’t run for another term in office. The Haaretz crowd believes that Obama will try to send the Jewish public a message, over the heads of the government, regarding the importance of the peace process in hope of generating some diplomatic momentum. But it’s a strategy that is bound to fail. Israelis have zero interest in changing the status quo right now, and demand for stability on the Palestinian front, and not for the internal confrontation that will be required for any solution to take place, was demonstrated in the last elections. The new government was formed around a pact between the secular public (led by Lapid and Livni) and the national religious and the settlers. Their ability to cooperate is based on a mutual interest to ignore the Palestinian issue as much as possible.

The way I see it there are two ways to understand the situation: Either the president has decided not to invest the necessary political capital in changing the status quo, so he is going for the cheap solution – rhetoric – knowing that he isn’t risking much but won’t gain much either; or that the administration is taking advice from people who don’t understand Israeli society very well – or those who tend to let their own desires blur their judgment.

There are many people who want to see the diplomatic process renewed, for various reasons, but are just as intimidated by the thought of another confrontation between the U.S. and Israel. They are constantly producing material on the need to approach the Israeli public with “the right” message and tone, so it might agree to listen to the president explaining what Israelis’ real interests are, as if they can’t figure it out on their own (Jewish-American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg is a prime example, but he is certainly not alone). It is a strange and twisted logic, but I guess it sounds better to an administration that is scared by the 2009-2010 trauma. It won’t, however, have much of an effect.

UPDATE: The Onion seems to agree with this analysis.

Palestinians greet Obama with popular resistance; army arrests dozens
The less Obama does on this visit, the better
Ending the occupation: No way around direct pressure on Israel


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