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President Barack Obama’s trip to the Middle East quickly earned the moniker “Operation Desert Schmooze” and drew comparisons to both his 2012 campaign style and the way he handles (or fails to handle) the polarized U.S Congress. But those superficial assessments fall short of the mark when it comes time to judge what may turn out to be one of the most consequential foreign trips of his second term.
Obama earned rave reviews for his speech in Jerusalem on reviving the stalled Middle East peace process and creating an independent Palestinian state. He reassured Israelis worried about his commitment to their security—notably in facing down Iran’s suspect nuclear program. He announced plans for more aid to Jordan, where one camp of refugees fleeing violence in Syria is now the country’s fifth-largest city.
But perhaps the biggest diplomatic victory occurred on Friday, out of sight, in a trailer not far from Air Force One on the tarmac at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport. That’s where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Obama at his side, telephoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to apologize for the deaths of nine Turkish citizens during an Israeli commando raid on a 2010 flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip, according to senior U.S. officials. The Mavi Marmara ship had been one of several bound from Turkey in a bid to run the Israeli blockade of the coastal area, which is under the control of the militant Palestinian movement Hamas.
"They both happen to be extraordinarily strong partners and friends of ours," Obama said of Israel and Turkey at a joint press conference with Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman hours after the call. "And so it’s in the interest of the United States that they begin this process of getting their relationship back in order, and I’m very glad to see that it’s happening."
The raid on the flotilla had sparked outrage across the region and poisoned relations between Israel, America’s closest Middle East ally, and Turkey, a precious NATO partner, neighbor to Syria and bridge between the West and the Muslim world. Both countries are vital at a time when Obama aims for progress on Middle East peace, seeks steps to end the bloodshed and speed the transfer of power in Syria, and faces dwindling hopes of a peaceful end to the standoff over Iran’s suspect nuclear program.
Erdogan and Netanyahu, who had not spoken since 2009, spoke for 30 minutes on a call that Obama helped broker. The president's aides told reporters aboard Air Force One that the Turkish leader "accepted this apology." And Netanyahu said he "appreciated" Erdogan's comments in an interview with a Danish newspaper, in which Erdogan seemed to back off from his description of Zionism as a crime against humanity.
The rapprochement between Israel and Turkey is vital to U.S. interests in the region, as the prospect of military action against Iran or the collapse of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime—and ensuing chaos—could require the U.S. and both of those countries to work closely together.
"They don’t have to agree on everything in order for them to come together around a whole range of common interests and common concerns," Obama said in Jordan, warning that the diplomatic patch-up was still very much a "work in progress."
That label could apply to the president's entire Middle East agenda.
The peace process still looks stalled; Iran hasn't shown any inclination to slow down what Israel and the U.S. charge is a nuclear weapons program; bloodshed in Syria has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives and counting; and turmoil after the Arab spring uprisings has some American diplomats worried they are trying to build the foundations of future relationships on quicksand.
Stylistically, Obama sometimes looked and acted the way he did during the 2012 campaign when he courted voters in a toss-up state led by a Republican governor. He quoted Ariel Sharon, the hawkish late Israeli prime minister, the way he sometimes invoked Ronald Reagan.
And the president sometimes looked and acted the way he does when pushing Congress to embrace his agenda—outlining the principles for action, but leaving the precise details to the parties involved. So he stressed that the creation of a Palestinian state is vital to Israel's security, that it is "just" and "necessary," and then he urged young Israelis to look at young Palestinians and "put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes."
"And let me say this as a politician—I can promise you this, political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see," he said.
Observers noted that this resembled his efforts to go around Congress to build popular support for his policies. But it also diminished flashpoints with Netanyahu: Obama used the speech to call Israeli settlements "counterproductive to the cause of peace." He omitted that message from an earlier press conference with the prime minister.
Obama also followed the political commandment: Lower thy expectations.
"I'll consider it a success if when I go back on Friday, I'm able to say to myself I have a better understanding of what the constraints are, what the interests of the various parties are, and how the United States can play a constructive role in bringing about a lasting peace, and two states living side by side in peace and security," Obama said on Wednesday.
By Friday, he was explaining it this way: "This is a trip to make sure that I’m doing my homework." No breakthrough necessary, he seemed to be saying—even though he reportedly ordered Secretary of State John Kerry back to Israel.
So what else did Obama achieve?
He reassured Israelis about his commitment to their security. He pledged continued support for Iron Dome missile-defense batteries that protect against Hamas-launched rockets. He announced plans for a deeper long-term strategic partnership. And he insisted, repeatedly, that Israel has the right to defend itself—notably in the face of the potential threat from Iran. And he underlined, repeatedly, that he would consider using military force if diplomatic and economic pressure does not drive Tehran to halt its nuclear program.
The potent American Israel Public Affairs Committee hailed Obama's commitments to Israeli security.
Second, Obama reshuffled the deck on Middle East peace. The Israeli public could pile pressure on Netanyahu to relaunch negotiations. When it comes to the Palestinians, Obama had two messages: First, that Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are Israel's legitimate interlocutors, but second, that negotiations should resume even if Israel does not halt settlement construction on areas Palestinians consider theirs. Abbas suspended talks in late 2010 because of the settlement issue.
"It’s important for us to work through this process, even if there are irritants on both sides," Obama said. "If the expectation is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there’s no point for negotiations."
Third, he left no doubt where he stands on Iran—and he even got help in delivering his message from an unusual source: Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei vowed on Thursday to destroy the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa if Israel attacked his country's nuclear program.
Iran's leaders should be making efforts to reintegrate their country in the world community, "not threats to raze Israeli cities to the ground," Obama said.
"My hope and expectation is, is that, among a menu of options, the option that involves negotiations, discussions, compromise and resolution of the problem is the one that’s exercised," he added. "But as president of the United States, I would never take any option off the table."