For three days this week Israel is a state under siege. Jerusalem is almost paralyzed due to President Obama's visit, Tel-Aviv is still moving , but nearly choking with excitement, as the second best soccer player in the world, Christiano Ronaldo, arrived with the Portuguese national team to play lowly Israel. The talk in Israel is that the TV ratings of both visits will indicate what really Interests ordinary Israelis in these pre-Passover days.
As I so often do in this blog, I am ready to take the risk and predict that the soccer game tomorrow will attract more viewers, but that may not reflect any disrespect towards President Obama. Just a reminder that Israel is, after all, a normal country, and in a normal country, even soccer stars could be a major attraction. It is so also because Israelis are bombarded with hostile press reports trying to convince them that their state is boycotted, the modern day pariah state of the world. Far from it, as after Ronaldo, the number one soccer star of the world, Leo Messi, and his Barcelona FC are coming to Israel to play for peace against a mixed Israeli-Palestinian team. Before Obama's visit, there was another important presidential visit, that of newly-elected Vladimir Putin, whose first state visit abroad after his inauguration was to the "boycotted" Israel.
Putin and other world leaders notwithstanding, it is Barack Obama who is stealing the show, and is fast becoming a popular figure in a state which viewed him with suspicion until now. To start with, this is not an historic visit. American presidents visited Israel in the past, and if there was any historic element in the visit, it is a comment made by the president upon his arrival which did not attract too much attention. It was the reference to 3,000 years of Jewish history in the land of Israel. This is in a nutshell what Zionism is all about. The return of the Jews to their historic homeland, the complete repudiation of the big lie, that the Jews are colonial invaders to a foreign country. And then, there were other statements which many Israelis did not like to hear, particularly those made in Ramallah, in the joint press conference with Chairman Abbas. The Israeli people and leadership will serve their best national interest by taking seriously into account both the tone and the contents of the president's remarks. They were made by a friend who landed in Israel just days after Gallop published another poll indicating record support for Israel in the U.S., placing her as one of the most popular foreign countries in America.
It is always an Israeli grudge, and often a correct one, that "we are all by ourselves." This is a sentiment which has very clear, and not always helpful, political connotations, as it leads many Israelis towards isolationism -- not a required trend of thought if a change of opinion could take place in the country in the direction of adopting more conciliatory policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When so many in the American press are raising the question, Why the visit? Why now?, the simple answer is that it may come a little too late, but better late than never. This is a charm offensive by a popular leader who knows the art of communication and should also know that goodwill is an essential ingredient in any successful diplomatic initiative. First, you plant the seeds of goodwill, then you can expect a change of heart and position among the recipients of the smiles and pleasantries. Barack Obama did not do that in his first term; in fact, he did almost the opposite. He failed, therefore, to win the goodwill of the vast majority of the Israeli people, making it ever easier to PM Netanyahu to fortify himself behind walls of intransigence.
The ultimative demand to freeze the settlement activity, which under different set of circumstances could have broken some ground and move the stalemated peace process forward, was thus thrown to oblivion, causing unnecessary damage to the bilateral American-Israeli relations, as well as to American prestige in the region. Today, four years later, President Obama all but admitted his mistake by downplaying the criticism of settlements, shying away from any prior conditions for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks. PM Netanyahu can afford a little smile, but no victory celebrations are in place here.
There is no better friend to Israel than the U.S., as was amply stated by the president in Jerusalem, and as is clearly felt by many more Israelis than before. Whether or not, and how this renewed faith in the strength of the American-Israeli alliance will be transformed into a change of policy in Jerusalem, still remains to be seen, but responsible and visionary leaders should seize upon the opportunity. This is Netanyahu's greatest challenge in the aftermath of the visit, and not less so that of Mahmoud Abbas. He also should take into account the mixed bag of what he liked and did not like to hear from the president, but on balance, he has heard enough to enable him to move ahead, and away from some of his own intransigent positions.
And coming back to the Ronaldo-Obama equation, it is the president which will remain in the collective Israeli mind as the better friend, despite TV ratings, because Ronaldo and his team are simply too good for the Israeli national soccer team... and Israelis hate to lose. What a surprise...