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Advocacy Update: Obama in Israel

Advocacy Update: US President Barack Obama Visits Israel

25 March 2013

After much hype in the Israeli public and press, President Obama’s first visit to Israel since becoming President ended on Friday afternoon, having spent around 52 hours in the country.

It all began on Wednesday afternoon, with a ceremony as the President’s airplane, Air Force One, touched down at Ben Gurion airport. There, he was officially welcomed by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu, both of who he greeted warmly, as one would greet an old friend. After both national anthems were sung, President Obama was taken around to shake hands and meet local religious leaders from all denominations and all of Israel’s newly sworn in MKs. Following this President Peres addressed the crowd, followed by PM Netanyahu and President Obama.

He began with some Hebrew, “tov lihiyot shuv ba’aretz”, which loosely translated means “it’s good to be back in the country”, before mentioning that while he was honoured to be in Israel as the country prepares for Israel’s 65th anniversary celebrations he acknowledged that “in stepping foot on this land, I walk with you on the historic homeland of the Jewish people… More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history”.

Addressing the strong bond between the two countries President Obama asked the question, “Why does the United States stand so strongly, so firmly with the State of Israel?” He declared that “the answer is simple. We stand together because we share a common story – patriots determined ‘to be free people in our land’, pioneers who forged a nation, heroes who sacrificed to preserve our freedom, and immigrants from every corner of the world who renew constantly our diverse societies… We stand together because we are democracies. For as noisy and messy as it may be, we know that democracy is the greatest form of government ever devised by man… So as I begin this visit, let me say as clearly as I can, the United States of America stands with the State of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interest to stand with Israel. It makes us both stronger. It makes us both more prosperous. And it makes the world a better place… That’s why the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes fly together today. And that is why I’m confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, it is forever – lanetzach”.

Following the official ceremony, President Obama was taken to view an Iron Dome battery, which had been brought to the airport specifically for President Obama to view it. He was also introduced a number of soldiers who work with the system, where he told them “you’re doing an amazing job” (see more). President Obama then boarded his Marine One helicopter and made his way to Jerusalem to meet again with President Peres.

Later still, a press conference was held between PM Netanyahu and President Obama. There, both leaders addressed a number of pressing issues including the peace process with the Palestinians, and the issues of both Syria and Iran. To watch the press conference in its entirety, please click here.

The following day, President Obama was taken to the Israel Museum, where he visited the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed. He was also shown a series of technological products from Israel’s hi-tech industry, which was a fantastic way for Israel to showcase its massive contribution to the world of technology.

Later in the day, President Obama addressed hundreds of students from Israeli universities at the Jerusalem convention centre. It is worth reading his entire speech, but perhaps what was most reported on was when he addressed the students on the issue of the Palestinians. He reiterated that “security must be at the centre of any agreement. And there is no question that the only path to peace is through negotiation. That is why, despite the criticism we’ve received, the United States will oppose unilateral efforts to bypass negotiations through the United Nations”.

Appealing to the notion that these students have the future and the fate of their country in their own hands he declared “but the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognised. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day… Neither occupation or expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land… Only you can determine what kind of democracy you will have”.

To these statements, President Obama was met with wild applause, though one student in the crowd noted that “it might have looked to you as if the whole hall was clapping in agreement. But where I sat, I heard enough people moaning, ‘what’s he talking about?’ ‘Well tell that to [the Palestinians],’ and so on” (see more). Reading those remarks, it does seem that the only way to truly achieve Obama’s vision is to ensure that both sides are a part of the process. The Palestinians need to be set free by their own leadership just as much as they need their freedom to be achieved through negotiations between both sides.

To this end, President Obama did bring this up in discussions with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas when he met with him in Ramallah earlier in the day. He stated that “if we’re going to succeed [in bringing peace], part of what we’re going to have to do is to get out of some of the formulas and habits that have blocked progress for so long. Both sides are going to have to think anew… But I’m confident that we can arrive at our destination to advance the vision of two nations, two neighbours at peace – Israel and Palestine… If given the chance, one thing that I’m very certain of is that the Palestinians have the talent, the drive and the courage to succeed in their own state” (see more).

Meanwhile, on the morning of Obama’s visit to Ramallah, five rockets were fired by Palestinian terrorists in Gaza into Israel. One landed in the backyard of a house in Sderot, causing no injuries, and one landed in an open area. A few more fell short and landed within Gaza (see more).

Sderot’s Mayor, David Buskila stated, “the rockets fired at the city this morning are the Gaza organisations’ way of communicating with the US President who is now in Israel. I believe they are trying to tell him that he can go to Ramallah or any other place in the territories and finalise things with Abbas, but that they are the ones setting the tone in regards to calm or escalation in the region”. This rocket attack does highlight this point, that as long as Hamas and other terror organisations are not on the same page as the Palestinian Authority, there is little hope moving forward.

Abbas did not condemn the attacks, and within the press conference with President Obama only referred to the division between the groups by stating “we are also serious in ending the division and achieve the Palestinian reconciliation”, but he did not outline any steps that would have to be taken in order to achieve this.

President Obama did refer to it in his speech though, stating “we saw the continuing threat from Gaza overnight, with the rockets that targeted Sderot. We condemn this violation of the important cease-fire that protects both Israelis and Palestinians – a violation that Hamas has a responsibility to prevent” (see more).

A Salafist group in Gaza, who are in opposition to the Hamas regime, claimed responsibility for the attack. They issued a statement with the headline “the demolition of Sderot by rocket bombardment in reaction to the visit of the dog Obama” (see more). Hamas has apparently arrested two Salafists in connection to the attack.

Before completing his visit to Israel, President Obama also visited the graves of Theodore Herzl and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, followed by a visit to Yad Vashem. There he declared, “here on your ancient land, let it be said for all the world to hear: the State of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, but with the survival of a strong Jewish State of Israel, such a Holocaust will never happen again” (see more).

He then visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem before heading back to the airport for one last meeting with President Peres and PM Netanyahu and departing to Jordan (see more).

The visit went well, and despite what many have said about the strained relationships between Obama and Netanyahu, both leaders seemed relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company. Please watch this video for some of the lighter moments of the beginning of Obama’s visit. Even during his speech to students he joked, “Now I know that in Israel’s vibrant democracy, every word and gesture is carefully scrutinised. But just so you know, any drama between me and my friend Bibi over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehederet” (see more). Eretz Nehederet is a satirical sketch program on Israeli TV that will no doubt continue to poke fun at Obama, Bibi and every other leader well after the visit is over.

Just as President Obama was preparing to leave Israel it was announced that a phone call had taken place between PM Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan where Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed regret for “any errors that could have led to loss of life” on the Mavi Marmara during the flotilla incident three years ago. In a statement communicated by the Israeli PM’s media advisor it was also stated that Netanyahu had “agreed to conclude an agreement on compensation/nonliability” and that “Israel had substantially lifted the restrictions on the entry of civilian goods into the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, and that this would continue as long as calm prevailed. The two leaders agreed to continue to work to improve the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories” (see more).

It was reported that the two countries would eventually restore diplomatic ties and that Turkey would drop its case against the IDF generals involved in the Mavi Marmara incident. However, a day later PM Erdogan stated that “we will see what will be put into practice during the process. If they [Israel] move forward in a promising way, we will make our contribution. Then, there would be an exchange of ambassadors” (see more). He also stated that it was too soon to drop the case against the Israeli soldiers (see more).

Nevertheless, the reconciliation has been seen by many as an important step forward in the strategic relations of the two countries, particularly in relation to issues with Syria and with Iran. A strategic alliance between Turkey and Israel will serve the interests of both countries. PM Netanyahu said that “the fact that the crisis in Syria is getting worse by the minute was the central consideration in my eyes (see more). President Obama was quoted as saying, “I have long said that it is in interest of Israel and Turkey to restore normal relations between two countries that have historically had good ties” (see more).

Israel’s Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon also declared, “Prime Minister Netanyahu has made a responsible decision… Developments in the region as well as US involvement made settling the crisis possible. This is in the best interest of both Israel and Turkey” (see more).

IDF Chief of Staff Lt-Gen. Benny Gantz also supported the decision stating, “The cutting of relations have many consequences, and the Prime Minister acted correctly”. He also praised the actions of the naval commandos, describing the raid as “professional, determined, and ethical. Any other army would have completed this with dozens of dead. The commandos carried out a good operation” (see more).

In other news, the Ben Zygier affair is back on the front pages of the Age (see here, here and here), mainly due to an “investigation” carried out by former Fairfax Mid-East correspondent Jason Koutsoukis and a team of reporters from Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine. Given that nothing official has come from either the Israeli government or the Australian government, and out of respect for the privacy of the Zygier family, the Zionist Federation of Australia has nothing more to add to this issue at this stage. Please refer to earlier ZFA statements on the issue here, here and here for more information.