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Has Obama's Mideast trip changed the game on the ground?

News analysis

TEL AVIV — The verdict among Israeli pundits was unanimous: if President Barack Obama was an Israeli politician, he'd be a shoo-in to lead the liberal left.

His call for the Israeli government to halt Jewish settlement building in the West Bank, for a Palestinian state, his recognition of Israel's historical claim to the land and his demand for a secure Israel, is all straight out of the playbook of what remains of Israel's left.

His speech to Israeli students Thursday, who were carefully vetted to make sure they were in political agreement with him, was greeted numerous times by applause and a few standing ovations. And while many Israelis may have disagreed with the content of the speech, Obama's sincerity was felt by all.

Obama drew a clear parallel between the Passover story of Jewish slaves fleeing Egypt and fighting for their rights, and the African-American struggle out of slavery and fight for their rights. That bond of shared experience, and the genuineness of his feelings, really came through.

So when Obama insisted that "all options are on the table" to stop Iran's nuclear program, he sounded convincing. And when he moved on to demand that Israel stop building settlements and make tough decisions to reach peace with the Palestinians, his words met with a more receptive audience.

For many Israelis, Obama won their hearts and their minds, but as one said to this reporter: "What now?"

Any closer to peace talks?

Are Israel and the Palestinians closer to peace talks than they were before Obama came? Did the fine words add up to momentum?

That will be up to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to discover when he returns to Jerusalem Saturday to try, as so many have before him, to kick-start the peace process. 

Overall, Obama's message had something for everyone.

The first half of Obama's speech, in which he confirmed Israel's right to the land, pleased Israel's right wing. The second half, in which he called for compromise with the Palestinians and a Palestinian state, pleased the left wing.

When he said this is a Jewish democratic state, Jews were thrilled and Palestinians were furious.

When he said Israel will not survive as a Jewish democratic state with settlements on Palestinian land, Palestinians were thrilled and many Israelis were furious.

But after trying to be all things to all people, Obama departed leaving behind a question: What just happened? Was there any American commitment to get started with the talks?

Israelis charmed, Palestinians insulted

The answer is: no. The message was: we are here to help, but first you have to do the work. In other words, nothing changed, beyond people’s impression of Obama as a leader.

Israelis were encouraged that Obama really does like them; Operation Charm worked.

But Palestinians were left fuming, and many say they were insulted.

They complained that he mentioned a Jewish rocket victim by name, but didn’t mention any of the many Palestinian victims, or the approximately 4,500 prisoners in Israeli jails. He visited the grave of two Israeli icons, Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin, but refused even to walk by the shrine to Yasser Arafat. He did not repeat the Palestinian demand that Israel stop building settlements as a condition for peace talks.

In short, Palestinians got very little, and Israel got a bit more.

At least, that's what the public saw.

Big brother still calling the shots

There was at least one big surprise from the backroom talks between Obama and Netanyahu that should go a long way toward improving frayed ties between two important U.S. allies in the region. 

After three years of refusing to do so, Netanyahu called his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan Friday to apologize for "any error" that may have led to the deaths of nine Turkish activists during a 2010 raid on a boat off the Gaza Strip.

The two agreed to normalize relations — a major breakthrough. It means the two big U.S. allies can now resume military cooperation, which should help to contain the spillover of the Syrian civil war in the region — and lessen Israel's isolation in the volatile region.

What isn't known yet is what was agreed to behind closed doors about how to deal with the twin threats of Iran and Syria.

In the press conference that followed their discussions, both sides seemed satisfied with the current degree of military and intelligence cooperation on both subjects.

But did Obama leave with the certainty that Israel would not interfere with the American timetable for dealing with the Iranian threat?

We don’t know more than we knew before, which is that impatient little Israel can't do much without their more patient bigger brother. 

But at least, after this visit by the American president, the brotherly relationship appears more credible than before.



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