THE BLOG
08/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Missing the Symbolism of Obama's Visit to Sderot, Israel

Senator Barack Obama was a big hit in Israel. The local TV last night and press this morning was in gushing form. According to Israel's most viewed news show, on Channel 2 TV, Israel's leaders (all of whom the Illinoisan senator met, from both government and opposition) entered something of a beauty contest over who could look most photogenic alongside the visiting presidential hopeful/rock star.

Obama spent an intense thirty-six hours ticking off the boxes of all the necessary sights and sounds -- from Yad Vashem to the Western Wall, from Labor leader Ehud Barak to Likud front man Benjamin Netanyahu, and everyone in between (including of course the Prime Minister and President). But the most symbolic stop on this whirlwind tour was in Sderot, and not for the reasons you might assume -- a topic to which we will return shortly.

For a day Israelis enjoyed being the center of world attention for a refreshingly non-angst ridden reason. To the extent to which Barack Obama had trailed John McCain in popularity ratings among Israelis, it was largely due to a lack of familiarity with the young Senator. That is something that this visit lay to rest, and that will likely be reflected in future, equally meaningless polls. All this should of course play very well back home, in particular with parts of the American Jewish community, which after all was the reason for Israel being on his trip itinerary in the first place. The Israeli media respectfully acknowledged this fact. By the way, and as was noted at Huffington Post, the entire exercise may have been somewhat unnecessary when one considers that a new J Street poll found that Obama is even more popular amongst American Jews than Joe Lieberman, with a thermometer positive rating of 57.8 % compared to Joe "Hagee is Moses" Lieberman who scored 41.7%.

If anyone was looking for balance (and few were), the Illinois Senator spent forty-five minutes with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his Ramallah headquarters. Forty-five minutes out of thirty-six hours is not much, but its forty-five minutes longer than what John McCain spared during his recent visit. He made do with a phone call -- and yes the Palestinian leadership has made an art form out of looking happy and expressing gratitude when it is being insulted and demeaned.

As for how serious the Israelis were taking the visit, here's the unusual yardstick that I would suggest we judge things by -- unlike the standard operating procedure accorded to visits by leading dignitaries of the current administration, no announcements on settlement expansion were made while the potential forty-fourth president was in town -- although the Israeli Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee could apparently not restrain itself any longer and voted after Obama's departure to approve new housing units in Maskiot in the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank.

All cynicism aside, the signs are that this was a serious, well-managed, and successful visit to Israel. Obama's message in the region was consistent with his message back home, Israel heard the reassurances that Obama had spoken previously but they sounded better on terra sancta. In addition to the pledges regarding the US-Israel relationship and Israel's security, Obama expressed support for the current Israeli proximity peace talks with Syria (something the Bush Administration is reluctant to do) and promised to engage on Israeli-Palestinian peace-making from day one were he to be elected (again, unlike the Bushies, who launched Annapolis after almost seven years of disengagement).

On Iran, only time will tell how responsive Israel's leaders will be to Obama's message of combining unconditional diplomatic engagement with pressure and sanctions ("big carrots and big sticks"). In public at least, Obama chose to present a rather watered-down version of his case. This is a shame. The case for diplomacy with Iran is a strong one, especially when compared to the dramatic failure of the current policy to register any change in Iranian behavior or progress on the nuclear file. Nevertheless, with the Bush administration sending its 3rd top diplomat to Geneva, albeit underutilizing the extremely accomplished and able Undersecretary of State William Burns, the debate is shifting on this issue. And the less said about Jerusalem the better.

But it was the Sderot visit that was replete with an ironic symbolism that has been almost totally overlooked. Sderot is the Southern Israeli town that is closest to Gaza, has borne the brunt of rocket attacks from there and consequently has become the site of pilgrimage for visiting dignitaries around the world. Obama was accompanied to Sderot by no less than three Israeli cabinet Ministers and was feted by local leaders. Sderot certainly has suffered in the last years and the empathy and understanding on display from the presumptive Democratic nominee was genuinely appreciated. Israeli papers even recounted the story of Obama's visit to the Amar family home, which had been damaged by rocket fire and his encounter with that family's young daughter, who upon seeing the young Senator yelped, at which point he apparently yelped back to her obvious delight. Reporters noted that of all the many visitors to the Amar home, Obama would be remembered as one of their nicest guests.

Obama chose the Sderot location for his only Israel press conference. Yes, Sderot is a symbol of the unacceptable hardships that Israelis face (in a surprise to no one, Obama chose not to acknowledge any sites of Palestinian hardship). But today Sderot is also becoming a symbol of something else. For a Presidential candidate, or anyone for that matter, to have held an outdoor press conference in Sderot without everyone being on edge, listening out for the next rocket siren alert, would have been unimaginable just one month ago.

Then, on June 19th, Israel made a move that could be viewed as being straight out of the Obama playbook: it tried a diplomatic rather than a military solution to the problem of violence emanating from Gaza. Via Egyptian mediation a cease-fire was reached with the Hamas leadership that controls Gaza -- with the support of the other armed Palestinian factions. Despite minor infractions on both sides, that cease-fire has largely held. And Sderot is an incomparably more secure place today as a consequence -- so secure in fact that Obama and the press corps could enjoy a relaxing Q and A together. Let's be clear, that cease-fire is fragile, it could break at any moment for a host of reasons (see my piece here). Much could be done to strengthen the cease-fire that is not being done. But even if it does break down, it will ultimately be returned to, as Israelis have realized that this is their only realistic option (Israelis are not enthusiastic about a military incursion -- been there, done that). Rather than embracing this symbol of what the hard-headed, tough diplomacy alternative looks like and how it can be effectively deployed, in a moment of great irony, Obama ignored it. What we got instead were the normal platitudes:

I will work from the moment that I return to America, to tell the story of Sderot and to make sure that the good people who live here are enjoying a future of peace and security and hope...If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.

Obama went on to implicitly negate the very efforts -- negotiations, albeit indirect, with Hamas -- that are proving more effective than all those undertaken by the military for so many months. Amongst others, one reason he gave was this: "It is very hard to negotiate with a group that is not representative of a nation state." This is the kind of flawed logic that the Democratic candidate deserves to be called on -- every Palestinian representative or group falls into that category; there is no Palestinian nation-state, so by the same token one cannot negotiate with any Palestinian.

But wait, in that previous quote, Obama did he say we would do "everything" to stop the rockets -- and isn't one of Obama's messages that everything should include diplomacy? Right now that interpretation sounds like a stretch, but if Obama's message of hope and change is to have any relevance for Israelis and Palestinians, then the logic that he applies elsewhere will have to be applied here as well.