POLITICS
08/02/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama In Israel: Did He Drop "Change" From His Agenda?

Overall, the reviews have been stellar for Barack Obama's foreign trip. A fortuitous news cycle laid out the red carpet for the presumptive Democratic nominee in Afghanistan when John McCain decided to announce that more U.S. troops were needed there. And the pattern was repeated again in Iraq, where the prime minister specifically endorsed the Illinois Democrat's withdrawal plan mere days before receiving him.

But in Israel, there persists a sense among some observers that Obama failed to deliver on his oft-repeated promise of "change" during his visit this week.

"From my personal point of view, I was really disappointed," said Israeli former deputy national security adviser Gen. Israela Oron. "There was no special message that you wouldn't expect from any other politician. He didn't say anything that he would regret. But since he is selling some kind of new promise in American political life, I expected him to say or to do something unusual, but he didn't," she told the Huffington Post, adding somewhat playfully: "But who am I to judge an American candidate?"

In fairness, Obama's visit to Israel was perhaps destined to be more politically dicey than his tour of Iraq, a country upon which American public opinion appears settled in favor of withdrawal. By contrast, the question of Israel and its enemies -- Iran, Hezbollah, and stray Palestinian rocket fire -- connects back to issues ranging from the substantive to the bogus that have long proved tricky for the Obama campaign.

On the one hand, the 46-year-old first term senator is working to counter John McCain's advantage on the question of who is more ready to become commander in chief. At the same time, Obama must parry the scurrilous, lingering rumors that he is a Muslim Manchurian candidate who cannot be trusted. Those realities, added to the fact that the margin of his advantage among American Jews could be decisive in key states like Florida, may have ruled out any bold proclamations about the Palestinian cause while in Israel.

Still, no one ever said change would be easy. As the liberal Israeli Ha'aretz put it in a Thursday editorial:

Obama offers the American voter "something new." Therein lies his charm. Israel and the rest of the region's countries need diplomatic innovation as well. But it seems that Obama - like his opponent John McCain and like U.S. President George W. Bush before him - is attempting to assure potential Jewish voters at the expense of promoting the peace processes in the region. ...

To survive as a Jewish and democratic state, Israel needs an American leader who does not fear the reaction of American Jews and non-Jews who do not believe in dividing the land to reconcile its two peoples.

Of course, the Obama campaign may have calculated that disappointing Israel's more dove-ish trends was something they could afford to do, so long as they didn't exit the country's airspace with a problem among hardliners. Judged by the coverage of Israel's more hawkish Jerusalem Post, Obama sounded all the right notes. When they headlined a story about Obama talking "tough," the target of said toughness was Iran, not West Bank settlements. Another Post editorial judged his previously bungled position on Jerusalem as "succinct," and also reported that the conservative Likud Party's leader Benjamin Netanyahu came away "impressed with Obama's understanding of the Iranian threat."

David Kimche, a former deputy head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, described the Jerusalem Post's coverage as key to understanding the fine line Obama walked while in Israel. "With such a sensitive audience, I think he passed the exam very well, in every sense of the word," Kimche said. "I would say that some people were very reluctant to admit he passed the threshold [on security]. Among the more radical elements who are scared stiff of peace, there was a great worry that Barack Obama would be not for the good of Israel. And they were rather reluctant in having to admit that he made all the right sounds. ... You can see it in the statements of some of the Likud leaders, including Netanyahu, who was very careful to not to criticize Obama but had in the past shown his doubts ... They had to admit it when he said the right things."

But not all of the former Israeli officials interviewed by the Huffington Post viewed Obama's trip as devoid of courage. Former national security adviser and deputy IDF chief of staff Gen. Uzi Dayan said Obama risked inspiring new worries when he said he would take a more active role than President George W. Bush in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "It was maybe a bit daring, [Obama's talk] about the role of an American president and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations," Dayan noted. "What he said, if we take him seriously, is that he is willing to sit in the driver's seat. This [has long been] an American dilemma. Not just whether you facilitate or you can coordinate or can implement. But are you going to be a driver or just a facilitator? I think this was his most significant remark."

However, Gen. Oron appeared a bit more jaded on that score, saying: "I'm not sure that he meant that the American government will play a more active role." Suggesting that she had heard as much in previous years, Oron wondered: "What does it mean to play an active role? I don't know what's 'active' anymore."

But still, Oron could at least give Obama some points for connecting on an emotional level with Israelis during his visit to the border town of Sderot, often the target of Palestinian Qassem rockets. "It seemed as if he understood our frustration when he was talking about his daughter, and how he would react if it was his family being attacked. I think that he was able to deliver some words of understanding about our frustration -- that we cannot just sit still and do nothing when this happens, but we also cannot use all our military force."

In the end, despite her own disappointment at the lack of political boldness during his trip, Oron conceded that Obama had made a good impression overall. "He knows what he's talking about. He's very well informed. And of course he's very intelligent."