Editor’s note: In an interview with Bernard Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign Relations, Martin Indyk looks at how President Obama’s trip to Israel was a success. Read an excerpt below.
Bernard Gwertzman: It’s been a couple of weeks since President Obama made his first trip to Israel as president, in which he gave a very well-received speech to an audience of students and touched upon the need for peace between Palestinians and the Israelis. Now Secretary of State John Kerry is apparently going to have to carry the peace-talks ball. Where do you think the United States stands after this trip?
Martin Indyk: In preparation for the trip, the White House wanted to remove any expectations that there would be any significant results, and the timing of the trip seemed to be structured in a way that would have the effect of lowering expectations because the president would be going only three days after the new government in Israel had been formed. But, in fact, the president was able to deliver what I consider to be two big things: the first was that he did win over that part of the Israeli public that is winnable. His popularity jumped in the first few days after his speech. He’d started from a low base of ten; now he’s around forty, and that’s very significant. And the fact that he took Israel by storm and won the hearts and minds of many Israelis had a direct impact on the second deliverable, which was the apology that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan leading to the opening of renormalizing relations between Turkey and Israel.
The two are directly related. The fact that the president had turned himself almost overnight from being an unpopular figure in the minds of most Israelis into somebody who they now understood did care about them meant that he managed to convince them to trust him more. The importance of that was that Netanyahu knew that the Israeli public would punish an Israeli prime minister who mishandles the relationship between Israel and a popular American president. Netanyahu had been able to exploit the fact that President Obama was very unpopular in Israel. When he famously upbraided the president in the Oval Office, Netanyahu actually went up ten points in Israeli public opinion. Obama in effect reversed that when he asked Netanyahu during the trip to call Erdogan and apologize to him. Instead of saying he couldn’t do that, which is basically the position that Netanyahu had adopted for three years, he turned around and said okay, essentially understanding that the Israeli public would support him in doing so and would criticize him for not responding to a president who had gone out of his way to manifest his friendship to Israel.
My biggest concern is that Washington is signaling to Russia that it’s OK to meddle in the politics of sovereign nations which are your neighbors. Meddling is going on from Paris to Ukraine, from east to west and north to south, within Europe and at its borders, and always with the intent of undermining the credibility and effectiveness of democratic institutions. And it is being either denied or downplayed.