Speaking from the tarmac of Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, President Barack Obama marked the beginning of his first trip to Israel as president with a speech reaffirming America’s “unbreakable bond” to Israel.
The president joked with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu saying “it’s good to get away from Congress.” Mr. Obama also called this trip “a chance to speak directly to Israelis and [its] neighbors,” a highly symbolic event considering Mr. Obama’s failure to visit the Jewish state in his first term.
Following a recent poll by Israeli daily Ma’ariv showing only 10% of Israelis view President Obama “favorably” and 38% believe the president is hostile to Israel, Obama’s visit serves as an attempt to revive ties with the Israeli people. The president will not speak in front of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, but has instead chosen to speak directly to students at an Israeli university.
This speech to Israeli students is designed to help Obama gain approval amongst the Israeli people, a strategy that could give him leverage over Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu. After Netanyahu’s weak win in the most recent election, the Israeli president must closely follow the opinions of the Israeli people if he hopes to remain in power in the coming years. That said, if Obama can gain greater support from the Israelis, he will simultaneously gain leverage over Netanyahu when it comes to diplomatic decisions in the future.
Further, Obama also hopes to gain support from the Israeli people by visiting the Dead Sea Scrolls, a gesture symbolizing the Jewish people’s 2,000-year old claim to the land. “In his Cairo speech, he did defend Israel, but bought into a narrative that Israel was only created because of the Holocaust. He is trying to establish another narrative about Israel that is about Zionism,” says Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel now at the Brookings Institution.
While Obama’s trip to Israel is highly symbolic for both Americans and Israelis, expectations are low that the visit will yield any significant results with the Arab-Israeli peace process.