Obama shifts toward Netanyahu with well-received visit to Israel

President Obama opened a new chapter with Israel during a three-day visit that seems to have relieved tensions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and created space for leaders to pursue peace.

The president seemed to strike many of the right notes during this week’s trip, saying he believed Israelis' right to live in the Holy Land was “rooted in history and tradition.”

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In a well-received speech to Israeli students in Jerusalem peppered with Hebrew, he compared the Exodus to the plight of African-American slaves and told them their future was “bound” to America's.

“Make no mistake — those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist, they might as well reject the earth beneath them or the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere,” he said. “So long as there is a United States of America — Atem lo levad. You are not alone.”

The day after that address, he paid homage to the Zionist leader Theodor Herlz and laid a stone from Washington's Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial on the tomb of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The visit spoke volumes about Obama’s intentions, as the site is important in underlining modern Israel’s land claims.

The gestures were designed, in part, to undo the damage from Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo, when he seemed to espouse the view that the state of Israel was rooted in the Holocaust.

The president also appeared to grow closer to Netanyahu, sharing light banter throughout his stay and joking that their icy first-term relationship was just a plot for an Israeli comedy show.

The trip culminated in a diplomatic breakthrough on Obama's last day in Jerusalem, when Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to apologize for the death of eight Turks in military operation to enforce the embargo on Gaza.

The call — which Obama helped broker just before he boarded a plane for Jordan — restored diplomatic contact between Israel and Turkey after a three-year freeze.

Israel and Turkey are both democracies and U.S. allies in a volatile part of the world, and the president has sought both countries' help in dealing with Iran, Syria and other hot spots.

Obama also used the trip to build a strong case for renewing the two-state peace process with the Palestinians.

He denounced Israeli settlements as “counterproductive" but said they should not be used an excuse for not restarting peace talks. And he embraced the future of Israel as a "Jewish" state — anathema to many of the 1.4 million Palestinian citizens of Israel who fear becoming second-class citizens.

“The core issue right now is how do we get sovereignty for the Palestinian people and security for Israeli people,” Obama said after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday. “That's not to say settlements aren't important. That's to say if we solve those two problems, the settlement issue will be resolved.”

Obama began the trip with the hope of improving his image in Israel, where only 10 percent of respondents viewed him favorably in a recent poll. Early reactions suggest he’s been successful at reversing some of the mistrust.

“Up until this visit, Israelis attributed anti-Israel worldviews to Obama,” wrote Nahum Barnea, a veteran columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest daily newspaper. “That story is over. Obama is no longer a hater of Israel. In the eyes of the Israelis who found it hard to agree with some of what he said, he is now a friend, albeit a naive one.”

The warm welcome Obama received has left some of the president's U.S. critics on the defensive.

“I’m glad the Israeli government has enough budget surplus that they can produce propaganda like that,” George W. Bush's ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, told Fox News. “The president has Israel's back, the bonds are strong. What could possibly go wrong?”

Conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin welcomed Obama's pivot but saw it as vindication of the conservative position that U.S.-Israeli relations were “abysmal” during the president's first term.

The Palestinians, for their part, decided to focus on the president's re-engagement with the peace process rather than his shift towards Israeli positions.

“What he said about Israel is his business and Israel's business... It's not going to affect us or our position or our view of this subject,” the Palestinian Liberation Organization's ambassador to the United States, Maen Ereikat, told The Hill in a phone interview from Ramallah.

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“We were encouraged to hear from the president his personal commitment and the commitment of the United States to the establishment of a 'sovereign' Palestinian state (…) — a meaningful state that has control over its territory, over its resources, over its air space, territorial waters, crossing points, what have you. That's what sovereign means.”

He said the president's visit to Israel and the West Bank now puts the onus on U.S. lawmakers, the overwhelming majority of whom have declined to meet with him, to “engage the Palestinians and stop pretending there is only one party to this conflict.”

“My personal view has always been that this is not going to be a symbolic photo-op visit,” Ereikat said. “It's the president of the United States. His plate is full, he has so many issues. He doesn't have time to waste. So I think by coming here he wanted to signal the engagement of the United States.”