Alex Witt   |  March 23, 2013

More style than substance in Obama’s Mideast trip?

NBC’s Martin Fletcher and Dennis Ross, Fmr. Special Assistant to President Obama join MSNBC’s Alex Witt to discuss President Obama’s trip to the Mideast.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> right now president obama is en route back home to washington and already before he touches down on american soil, the appraisal game begins. how did he do in his first trip to israel ? it seems he won plenty of style points. in today's " washington post " dana milbank writes obama didn't accomplish uch of substance, no obvious progress towards talks, no new ground on deterring iran's nuclear program or syria 's chemical weapons , but the israelis who had been suspicious of obama 's commitment to the jewish state were delighted by the attention. he had us at shalom was the headline in on an analysis in the jerusalem post . frf tel aviv nbc news correspondent martin fletcher . good day to you both.

>> nice to be with you.

>> dennis , i will begin with you. was this style over substance and style does matter a lot here, right? especially with israel .

>> well, i think sometimes style and substance become one and the same. the fact is the president had a major objective in this trip and that objective was to build credibility with the israeli public. by doing that, that would begin to create greater political space for him on issued like iran, on issues like the peace question. if you don't have that connection, if you don't have that credibility, the ability to move on those issues becomes profoundly difficult. so i think what he did was achieve a fundamental objective number one, and number two, there was a substantive achievement. that substantive achievement was a reconciliation between turkey and israel . something the administration has been working on for the last three years. that came directly as a result of this trip and so i think this was not only an achievement of style, it was also an achievement of substance.

>> and so that means successful in terms of israel and substance and style, but not so for the palestinians , martin, who felt somewhat snubbed at times. what happened there?

>> well, you're right, alex, they did. as dennis said, it was about establishing credibility with israel to move forward, but to move forward it takes two, and did he not succeed in establishing credibility with the other side, with the palestinians . they were frustrated i think is the bottom line. before he came among the people, there was mainly indifference, almost hostility and he didn't do much to change that. the palestinians were pointing out, for instance, that president obama visited the graves of the founder of modern zionism but he walked past the grave of yasser arafat . they need change on the ground. there were many fine words. the speech that president obama gave in jerusalem to the students said many fine things about the need to make peace with the palestinians , but the people on the west bank , let alone gaza, but we're talking about the people on the west bank mainly, they have a very hard daily existence. what they're looking for is change. one other thing that several palestinians mentioned to me today, they're talking about 153,000 palestinian civil servants rarely get their salaries on time. when they do, they get half the money. they point out, he's just -- america has just given $200 million to the jordanians to help syrian refugees, what about us? i think there's a major credibility gap . the charm offensive with the israelis worked, did not work with the palestinians .

>> dennis , your assessment. did things just stay status quo given the way palestinians viewed this president prior to the trip? did things get worse? you know this administration very well. is it concerned about alienating the palestinians ?

>> well, obviously peace prirs requires being able to move with both sides. i think in this particular case, if you don't establish a basis with the israelis , the ability to do much at all, particularly when frequently it's the israelis who are having to give the tangible things, is pretty limited. the fact is there have been efforts with the palestinians , and i think also the conversation that the president had with mahmoud abbas in private was probably something that i think will help to create a basis. you do have the secretary of state meeting today with mahmoud abbas in amman. i think you have to look at it in terms of the private dimension. one of the significant things about this trip was that precisely because the expectations were low, it allowed the president to go and to see each leader without either leader expecting he was going to be asked to do something very hard, which inevitably puts each leader in a defensive crouch. given the environment, the ability to have serious discussion that is could lay a basis for moving forward i think may well have been done in this trip and we'll see what comes now in the aftermath of the secretary of state. the measure of the trip won't be what happens this week or next, it's going to be what happens over the next couple months.

>> yeah. guys, to both of you, the president said during the press conference with king abdullah , that the u.s. is in a no-win situation in syria . it's criticized when it takes military action . it's krit siced for not taking military action . so what then are the options on the table, martin?

>> well, the americans are insisting they need to act within the international community . it can't be up to the united states always to send in troops, and i don't really think that people in the region are expecting that, but there needs to be some kind of effort made to enable -- my feeling is a clear winner in syria . we're all talking about the emphasis is on helping the resistance against president assad reach victory. obama keeps saying it's not matter of if but when president assad leaves. that's not really so sure. looking at the what's happening on the ground, the breakup of syria is more likely rather than a clear victory of one side winning or losing and president assad leaving the country altogether. so it's really a matter of the next step. what happens after whatever happens in syria . the threat is to the region. the countries on the borders of syria . turkey has its problems. jordan could well have its problems very soon. lebanon. so it's a very -- it's a situation that's very volatile. syria has been imploding and the fear, of course, is that it will explode. america's options -- what it needs to do is help the region formulate some kind of way of dealing with the problem inside syria . american troops on the ground very unlikely, but, of course, there are already special forces , american special forces , british special forces , and i believe french special forces inside jordan training the resistance against president assad . so there is something going on, but hopefully -- i don't want to assume because there won't be american boots on the ground .

>> do you concur with that?

>> i do concur. when we take a step back, this is one of the situations we have moral reasons to try to do more and we have the reasons martin was saying. we have very tangible interests. this is a conflict where the las vegas rules don't apply. what is in syria is not going to stay in syria . you're going to see a conflict that radiates out. so the humanitarian disaster, which is really of unbelievable proportions right now, is something we have to try to address on the one hand. on the other hand, i think we're going to have to also look for ways that you contain this conflict. i think the question of assad 's survivability is one that is a question of timing. he can stay -- he is likely to survive for some period longer. the longer it takes, the worse it is for syria . the fact is syria is moving increasingly towards a disintegration, and that's not in anybody's interest. so the real question is going to be, a, how do we do more to affect the balance of forces among the opposition so those who emerge are committed to a syria that's intact that's not nonsectarian. how do we do more to provide assistance to all those who are displaced from syria who are probably 10% of the population not to mention the 1.2 million who are refugees on the outside and, three, how do we do more to try to contain this so it doesn't destabilize the neighborhood.

>> tough questions you're posing for which there are pretty tough answers. thank you very much, gentlemen. dennis , martin, gooed to