The speech and spectacle surrounding it electrified much of the Muslim world — and alarmed many Jews.
Around midnight, after touring the Sphinx and pyramids, Obama headed to Dresden, Germany, for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The U.S. delegation did not stop in Jerusalem, as some Israeli officials had hoped it would. The trip had a planned symmetry, as White House aides recently described, that a few days in Israel would have disrupted.
After a quick meeting with Merkel, Obama headed for the hilltop camp of Buchenwald, an iconic element of the genocidal Nazi network. He met the Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel on his arrival. Wiesel spent time at the camp as a child. His father died there.
Of the horrified liberators who arrived at the camp decades earlier, Obama said, “They could not have known how the nation of Israel could rise out of the destruction of the Holocaust and the strong, enduring bonds between that great nation and my own.”
For the small number of people who witnessed that still afternoon, the memory was indelible. It was also a miscalculation, a sign that the president knew less about the historic shape of the Israeli-Palestinian story than he thought. Some prominent Israelis and Jewish supporters said Obama, in his somber remarks at the gates of the camp, suggested that the state of Israel emerged as a moral response to the Holocaust. But most Israelis believe the state’s legitimacy is rooted in the Bible and Hebrew texts of its people, a central tenet of Zionist thought.
“What you saw, at several turns during Obama’s management of this, was a complete lack of an emotion-based relationship with Israel,” said a former Palestinian political adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid view.
“The Cairo speech was excellent, important,” the adviser said. “But it didn’t preclude a Jerusalem speech. It didn’t show any emotional smarts.”
The dilemma Obama faced came to be known among American Jews as “the kishkes question,” a Yiddish expression referring to what he “felt in his gut” toward Israel.
“American Jewish supporters of Israel have gotten used to presidents conveying a sense of solidarity with Israel in ways that are greater than the sum of specific policies,” said Nathan J. Diament, the executive director for public policy of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and an Obama acquaintance at Harvard Law School. “President Obama, despite making pro-Israel statements, had trouble finding his voice to express that sense early in his presidency.”
George W. Bush did not visit Israel until late in his second term, and Ronald Reagan did not visit at all — yet neither faced the same doubts about their attachment to the nation. Neither did Bill Clinton, a master empathizer who eulogized Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after his 1995 assassination.
Returning from the trip, Obama spoke by phone to Netanyahu on June 8, 2009, and, by all accounts, the call was not a happy one. Netanyahu was resisting the settlement freeze request — managed by Mitchell, who was due to arrive in Israel the next day for his fourth visit to the region.
Less than a week later, Netanyahu endorsed, for the first time, the Palestinian right to an independent state during a national address. Obama immediately called the speech “an important first step,” even though it contained so many caveats that Palestinians dismissed it as an empty gesture.
Not long after, Obama assembled the Jewish leaders in the Roosevelt Room in July for that first meeting after a difficult few months of early diplomacy.
Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League leader, expressed concern that Obama was not being “evenhanded” when it came to asking for sacrifices from Israel and the Palestinians.
“Abe, you are absolutely right and we are going to fix that,” Obama told him, saying that “the sense of evenhandedness has to be restored.”
Obama’s view of the conflict broke from Bush’s approach, which he believed overtly favored Israel and damaged the United States’ ability to play the role of trusted mediator. Bush developed a close relationship with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a Likud member for decades until breaking off to form a centrist party known as Kadima. He even took Sharon to his ranch in Crawford, Tex., before Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.
With what they viewed as mixed results from the Bush years, some Jewish leaders in the meeting that day disagreed with Obama’s assessment that only by creating some public distance with Israel could diplomatic progress be made with the Palestinians.
“The case he was trying to make was that the United States will be a better partner to Israel if it has more credibility with the Arab states, that we will be a better, more useful friend to Israel if we have more friends in the Arab world,” Rhodes said.
But the continuing Israeli resistance to a settlement freeze, growing tension with American Jews and a lack of progress with Arab leaders concerned Obama, who needed to make a change.
In late May 2009, James L. Jones, the national security adviser, called Ross, who was running the Iran portfolio at the State Department. Ross served in the Clinton administration, and was tapped early by Hillary Clinton to work for her at State.
He was among the most experienced U.S. diplomats concerning Middle East peace efforts and had proved over the years to be a voice within administrations for reducing pressure on Israel.
“Did you hear the president wants to see you tomorrow?” Jones asked Ross, instructing him to arrive at the White House the next morning without telling him why.
In their meeting, Obama informed Ross that he wanted him to “quarterback” all Middle East policy, including that involving Iran.
Ross was inheriting a policy that he considered politically unfeasible. He believed the haggling over the freeze was wasting Obama’s political capital in a region that once had high hopes for his presidency.
“We had adopted a hard and firm position on this by then,” Ross said in an interview, echoing what he told the president. “The problem was that it put the emphasis on one issue when it wasn’t the only, or even most important, issue and, in any case, needed to be put in context.”
Ross arrived in the West Wing in July 2009, the same month Obama held his first meeting with Jewish leaders. The initial question Ross wanted answered was: Who developed the settlement-freeze idea and was it possible to alter it? What he got was finger-pointing and no clear reply, even among senior officials.
With Mitchell in the region or at his home in Maine, Ross accumulated more influence on the issue as the weeks wore on and progress remained elusive.
“What’s the strategy here?” Obama asked constantly in meetings with Mitchell, Emanuel and others pushing for the settlement freeze, according to participants. “I see you want the moratorium, but how does it get us where we want to be? Tell me the relationship between what we are doing and our objective.”
The senior staff rivalry intensified as the questions persisted.
Administration officials said Mitchell and Ross clashed over responsibilities and policy approach, and Israel appeared to see its influence rise within the West Wing.
To those on Mitchell’s staff, there was confusion about how he could be so inept at the internal White House politics. He had been a skilled Senate majority leader, adept at political infighting.
“So it surprised me that it so surprised him that you have to do that in the job he was in,” said one administration official involved in Middle East policy.
n November 2009, Netanyahu announced a 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, excluding several hundred new permits that, much to Mitchell’s displeasure, Israel shoe-horned in before the deadline.
But Netanyahu would not agree to a moratorium in East Jerusalem, prompting Abbas to call the freeze meaningless. He would not participate in new talks, despite pressure from some of his own advisers to do so.
“I told him that you have to help the president to help you,” said a Palestinian adviser to Abbas at the time, who, like others, agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. “He looked at me and said, ‘He’s the president of the most powerful country in the world. He doesn’t need my help.’ ”
The result: an angry Netanyahu, who had made a political sacrifice without reciprocation from the Palestinians. Israeli officials wondered why Obama was not applying the same pressure they had been feeling for months to the Palestinian leadership — and so did Israel’s supporters in the United States.
As the midterm election year of 2010 began, Obama and his political advisers decided that it was time to mend some fences with nervous Jewish voters.
Obama tapped Vice President Biden in March to go to Israel, where his relationships with Israeli and Palestinian leaders dated back decades.
As Biden arrived in Tel Aviv on a two-day mission to reaffirm U.S.-Israeli relations, he was greeted by Mitchell, who had just announced that Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to begin indirect talks.
But Biden soon received disturbing news.
Israel’s Interior Ministry announced the construction of 1,600 new housing units in northern East Jerusalem — a community called Ramat Shlomo — that undermined Mitchell’s success at bringing the two sides closer together.
“It may have been a coincidence, but if so, it was an extraordinary and unfortunate coincidence,” Mitchell said in an interview.
For Biden, who was scheduled to dine with Netanyahu that evening, this was a diplomatic embarrassment. The vice president wanted to issue a statement from Jerusalem, but its wording was the subject of intense debate among his advisers and those back at the White House. Biden showed up for dinner at Netanyahu’s residence more than an hour late, and the statement he finally issued used the term “condemn,” the most severe under consideration. As Ross put it later, according to officials familiar with the debate, he believes that term should be used only to describe events related to terrorism.
Referring days later to the settlement announcement in his speech at Tel Aviv University, Biden noted that he had “condemned it immediately and unequivocally” at “the request of President Obama.”
As Biden flew home that day, his aides believed the episode was over. Some joked that the new Israeli settlement should be renamed “Biden Towers.”
While the vice president was in the air, Obama had breakfast with Secretary Clinton at the White House. By the end of the meal, Clinton returned to the State Department, where she got Netanyahu on the phone.
For about 45 minutes, according to senior State Department and White House officials, some of whom witnessed the call, Clinton sharply criticized the prime minister, calling what had happened a humiliation to the United States.
“She told him that this had created a problematic atmosphere and that we’re looking to you, as a friend, to take some concrete steps to make it right,” said a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Clinton had several items that Obama wanted Netanyahu to address. While they have not been made public, Israeli and U.S. officials acknowledged recently that Netanyahu effectively froze new building in East Jerusalem after the Clinton call.
Nearly two weeks later, Netanyahu, reading polls that showed him with a far higher approval rating than Obama in Israel, traveled to Washington for an annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee
“The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today,” Netanyahu said in his March 2010 speech, openly defying Obama.
“Jerusalem is not a settlement,” he said to sustained applause. “It is our capital.”
Obama’s mind was elsewhere. Earlier that day, he had signed the Affordable Care Act, his historic and politically expensive health-care legislation.
But Israeli officials wanted a meeting with Obama to play down their dispute over “Biden Towers,” despite Netanyahu’s statement, which the president later told a private audience he found “belligerent.”
Obama agreed to meet with Netanyahu. But the White House did not allow photos of the encounter, denying Israel’s leader an image to reassure his public that all was right with the U.S. president.
“We did not want to reward the Israelis after the Biden visit fiasco with a make-up meeting at the White House,” said a senior administration official involved in the planning. “But more important, the meeting came on the same day Obama signed the health-care law,” the official continued. “That was the White House message of the day, and we weren’t looking to lift up Israel as an issue at that moment.”
The open anger between Israel and the president frightened some congressional Democrats who were concerned about a tough election environment. In May 2010, they asked Emanuel for a meeting with the president.
In the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, 37 Jewish senators and House members sat around tables set up in a “U” shape. No one could recall a larger meeting between a president and Jewish lawmakers. The unanimous support for Obama’s Israel policy that many of those same members expressed to Netanyahu a year earlier had turned to worry.
“At the heart of our concern was the focus on settlements, undertaken without congressional consultation, as much had been with this president over the past three years,” said one participant, who is generally supportive of Obama.
“My policy on settlements is no different than George Bush’s policy toward settlements,” Obama told the members, according to notes of the meeting shared by a participant. “But I won’t wink and nod.”
In his trips to the region, Mitchell urged Abbas to begin direct talks, even as he agreed with the Palestinian leader that Israel’s partial freeze was imperfect.
Abbas was facing pressure from his advisers, who argued that Netanyahu had taken a political risk under pressure from Obama.
About nine months after the Israeli settlement freeze was announced, Abbas decided the time was right to talk. The plan was to inaugurate the talks at the White House on Sept. 1, 2010. But a problem loomed. Israel’s settlement moratorium was set to expire at the end of September, and Netanyahu had made clear, despite Obama’s requests, that it would not continue.
A debate unfolded over whether to announce the direct talks in a less formal way. Obama’s communications advisers, in particular, believed it was a bad idea to set unrealistic expectations with a lavish opening ceremony. But, according to three senior administration officials involved in the debate, Ross pushed hardest for a White House event. He prevailed.
On the evening of Sept. 1, from the East Room, Netanyahu turned to Abbas and said, “you are my partner in peace.” The talks began.
Three weeks later, Obama told the U.N. General Assembly in his annual address that “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”
Within days, Israel’s settlement freeze expired and with it the direct talks. After a year and a half of politically costly pressure on Israel, Obama had nothing to show for it, except far less capital to work with at home and a damaged reputation among the Middle East veterans directly involved.
“Around this time, an image was being created that it was pain-free to say no to the United States,” said a former Palestinian adviser to Abbas, who is known informally as Abu Mazen. “There was no sense of awe around the president — and that is essential to the peace process. That is what informed Abu Mazen’s thinking about Obama.”
In January 2011, Obama called Abbas with a president-to-president request.
After the direct negotiations collapsed, Abbas urged Arab nations to submit a resolution to the U.N. Security Council condemning Israeli settlement building on occupied land and calling for a new freeze.
Abbas was planning to secure a resolution at the General Assembly in September that would recognize the state of Palestine. Despite it being consistent with U.S. policy on settlements, a senior administration official said, “We knew this resolution would be a prequel to the statehood debate coming in the fall, and we wanted to head it off.”
In a call that lasted about an hour, Obama urged Abbas to withdraw the settlement resolution, warning that Congress might eliminate roughly $450 million in annual U.S. aid to the Palestinians if he went ahead.
Abbas told him flatly that he planned to proceed. A few weeks later, Obama used the U.S. veto on the Security Council for the first time, killing the resolution and infuriating the Arab world he had cultivated.
By then, the Arab Spring was unfolding in ways that took the administration by surprise. Decades of U.S. policy in the Arab world, an unpopular bargain that often placed stability ahead of democratic rights, were shattering.
Obama had called for democratic reform in Cairo, but as allied governments fell chaotically across the wider Middle East, he and his advisers saw as much peril as promise in the changes. How and when to get on the side of the street-based reform movements, whose leaders were largely unknown, was the central question they faced.
The Obama administration prepared for new Islamist governments in the region — all of them likely to be hostile toward Israel — and turned its back on several secular autocratic allies. That included Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, one of only two Arab leaders whose countries had a peace treaty with Israel.
As Arab leaders tumbled, Obama and his senior advisers debated how to speak about the American stake in the new Middle East. Among the central questions for Obama was how, if at all, the changes should be related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mitchell and Ross disagreed over how Obama should talk about the issue. A speech was scheduled for the eve of a Netanyahu visit to the White House, and as Obama prepared for an official visit to Europe.
Ross argued that Obama should give not one but two addresses, fearing that the points he intended to make about Arab democratic reform would be overwhelmed if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were introduced. He was alone in that view.
With that decided, a larger debate emerged over how far Obama should go in setting out his view of an eventual peace agreement. He had been considering doing so for months, particularly at times when Mitchell was hitting brick walls in the region.
Mitchell led a group of advisers in arguing that Obama should endorse new direct talks based on the pre-June 1967 lines, and acknowledge that swaps of land from inside what is now Israel would be made to account for Israeli settlements in the territories.
He should also emphasize Israel’s security requirements, as he frequently did in speeches and in his requests for increased military aid in Congress, they said.
Where Mitchell differed strongly from Ross was that he wanted Obama to take on the conflict’s two most vexing issues: a division of Jerusalem, the holy city that Israelis and Palestinians both claim as their capital, and the right asserted by millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendents to return to land inside Israel.
“Mitchell wanted Obama to be as bold as possible, to send a signal to the parties and the Arab world more broadly that the United States wanted change on this core issue of historic contention,” said a senior Obama adviser involved in the debate.
Mitchell lost, and announced his resignation six days before Obama delivered the speech at the State Department.
“I left because I had told the president from the start I would only do it for two years or so,” Mitchell recalled. “But that wasn’t the only reason I left.”
Ross won largely because Obama, as has been his penchant on other issues, essentially split the difference. He decided to talk about borders and security, but not Jerusalem and refugees.
Before diplomats at the State Department on May 18, 2011, Obama said that for Israelis, the conflict “has meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets.” He added, “For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation.”
“Yet expectations have gone unmet,” he said. “Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks.”
What Obama intended to say on the Israeli-Palestinian question was so closely held in the days before the speech that, as drafts of the address were circulated for comment, the section on that issue was left blank.
Netanyahu, as he prepared to leave for Washington, felt blindsided by how Obama framed future talks about territory. Israeli officials, led by the historian Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, seized on Obama’s reference to the 1967 lines.
Obama mentioned that land swaps probably would be necessary to make up for territory taken by Israeli settlements, a formulation Bush also had used.
But the Israelis claimed that the president had in a single morning changed decades of U.S. policy on how the negotiations would unfold on the final borders of Israel.
At the heart of the Israeli anger was Obama’s unspoken suggestion that the starting point for talks would begin with the original 1967 lines, not the new Israeli settlement boundaries that extend deep into the West Bank.
One senior State Department official said Netanyahu and other Israeli officials intentionally misunderstood Obama’s position to score political points with a right-trending electorate at home. As this official put it, “Friends do not treat friends that way.”
In the Oval Office the next day, Obama and Netanyahu sat side by side. After the president’s brief welcome, the prime minister leaned into him with cameras catching every moment. He suggested bluntly that Obama had little, if any, understanding of how peace efforts and the broader Middle East worked.
“I think for there to be peace, the Palestinians are going to have to accept some basic realities,” Netanyahu told him.
Publicly calm, Obama was privately irate at the treatment. As a senior Obama adviser involved in the meetings said, “I can think of no other time when a president has been lectured to in the Oval Office.”
Obama’s ire didn’t melt easily.
His public push for peace vanished until September, when he headed off the Palestinian statehood resolution at the General Assembly.
But the issue still dominated the annual gathering of world leaders, where Obama previously had made calls for Israelis and Palestinians to sacrifice for peace. This time, as Republican presidential rivals lined up to criticize his policy toward Israel, Obama had something else in mind.
On his way to the venue on the morning of Sept. 21, 2011, he jotted some additions in the margins of the prepared text.
The phrases, which came so late that he began the address reading from the paper copy because it had yet to be loaded into the TelePrompTer, underscored for an audience usually hostile to Israeli interests the pain experienced by the other side.
“Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them,” Obama said, delivering the lines he had written on his way to the speech. “The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and fresh memories of knowing that 6 million people were killed simply because of who they are. Those are the facts. They cannot be denied.”
He did not use the words “occupation” or “settlements,” and to many in the hall that day, a president who promised something different in Cairo sounded much the same as his predecessors on an issue that had baffled them.
Ross left the administration two months later for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, his longtime think-tank home. The fights had been fought. He knew there was not much else he could do.
Last month, Obama gathered another group of Jewish leaders at the White House, this time Orthodox rabbis and lay leaders.
Diament, the Obama law school acquaintance, introduced the president. He called him a man who, like many of the Jewish leaders around the table, advocated for change based on principle.
Diament had not attended the first meeting between Obama and Jewish leaders almost three years earlier, when the president outlined the need to establish credibility with the Arab states.
But to Diament, who had been briefed on that gathering, Obama’s message on this June day was far different.
“My administration is not being evenhanded,” Obama said, according to notes taken by some of the participants. “We are being decidedly more attentive to Israel’s security needs,” a statement that attendees believed was a reference to how the president viewed the eventual terms of a peace deal.
Diament said he thought, “Three years ago ‘evenhandedness’ was the gold standard in Middle East peace-making. Now it is something that is being avoided.”
Where, then, does a president who promised a new approach to the old Middle East and ultimately failed to deliver begin if he wins a second term?
“The president’s view now is that this is about the Israelis and the Palestinians,” said Rhodes, his deputy national security adviser. “These really are their choices to make.”
During the meeting last month, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, asked Obama for his assessment of the past three years.
Those in the room had their opinions — on the “kishkes question,” on the need for a close relationship with Israel, and on Palestinian will. Now it was Obama’s turn to explain his view of the work he had done to secure an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“Mr. President, what lessons have you learned?” Goldin asked.
“That it’s really hard,” Obama said.