Correction: An earlier version of this column reported that a heckler who interrupted President Obama’s speech was demanding the release of Jonathan Polland, a spy for Israel. That was based on news reports on the day of the president’s speech; later media reports clarified that the heckler was complaining about Israeli treatment of Palestinians. This version has been updated.
In Israel this week, President Obama was quite the kibitzer.
He kibitzed — Yiddish for offering unsolicited chatter, jokes or advice — about the stripes on the tarmac at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. He kibitzed about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s family and about being a lefty. He kibitzed about the weather and gardening. He kibitzed about the health of Israeli President Shimon Peres, a mechanical snake, a chandelier and the relative troubles presented by Congress and the Knesset.
He even kibitzed on a visit to Yitzhak Rabin’s grave Friday, as overheard by reporters in the White House press pool: “Bibi arranged for perfect weather . . . Shimon plied me with wine . . . [Rabin] had a great speaking voice. . . . I can sing. They had me sing on YouTube.”
Obama didn’t accomplish much of substance: no obvious progress toward talks with the Palestinians, no new ground in 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 on an analysis in the Jerusalem Post.
The trip was so successful that it could provide Obama with a road map (to use the moribund term from peace talks) for success in his second term in areas beyond the region. Call it the triumph of low expectations: When your goals are less ambitious, they are easier to meet.
When he came into office in 2009, Obama had encouraged the belief that he could bring peace to the world and prosperity to the American economy, and still be home in time for lunch. Now, after a humbling four years, he has lowered his sights. White House officials discouraged any belief that the Israel trip was about something other than good will.
When reporters asked Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, about the early stages of the trip, he replied: “This is fantastic. We have not had to talk business yet.”
The American press applauded, too. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who dismissed the trip as “Operation Desert Schmooze,” later wrote that Obama’s centerpiece speech in Israel was “brilliant.”
Obama began his presidency with hopes of being an honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians. “The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” he said in his Cairo speech four years ago, proclaiming “it is time for us to act.” Construction of Israeli settlements, he noted, “violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”
Two years later, Obama alarmed Israel when he proclaimed that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”
But on this trip, he stood in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and encouraged the Palestinians not to “put the cart before the horse” by demanding a settlement freeze before entering peace talks.
Speaking to Israeli students in Jerusalem, Obama was philosophical. “I know that only Israelis can make the fundamental decisions about your country’s future,” he said. He told them he had proposed “principles on territory and security that I believe can be the basis for [peace] talks — but for the moment, put aside the plans and the process. I ask you, instead, to think about what can be done to build trust between people. . . . That’s where peace begins — not just in the plans of leaders but in the hearts of people.”
Even a heckler complaining about Israeli treatment of Palestinians didn’t interfere with Obama’s friendly spirit. “I have to say, we actually arranged for that because it made me feel at home,” he told the crowd.
Gone were Obama’s demands. Suppressed were his lofty ambitions. And absent were expectations, in his audience and among the American public, that he would achieve a peace breakthrough. It was a tacit admission of failure, yet everybody seemed happier with the scaled-back aspirations.
Obama expressed particular delight in the ceremonial parts of his visit, such as toasting Peres, the 89-year-old president. “Mmm, that’s good wine,” he said after requesting a fresh glass. “Actually, we should probably get this out of the photograph. All these people will say I’m having too much fun in Israel.”
Earlier, Obama planted a magnolia tree in the president’s garden. “I want everyone to know, this was on Air Force One,” he said. Shoveling earth, he added: “And we’re very good gardeners.”
After the ceremony, Israeli officials said the tree would be inspected for pests and that it may need to be dug up. But that didn’t matter: The point was the gesture, not whether it took root.