By Joel Brinkley
President Obama's makeup visit to Israel was a great success, by most measures, but don't expect peace between Israelis and Palestinians anytime soon - despite Obama's ringing call for it.
Relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been prickly, at best, since Obama first took office in 2009. During last year's presidential election Netanyahu tacitly campaigned for Mitt Romney, certainly angering Obama.
But now that Obama has begun his second term, he realized that a frosty relationship with Israel was a thorn that had to be pulled from his side. So he went on his so-called "listening tour." He gave speeches laced with the sorts of bromides that Israelis love to hear.
"For the Jewish people, the journey to the promise of the state of Israel wound through countless generations," he told a Jerusalem audience. "It involved centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice and pogroms and even genocide. Through it all, the Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home."
Nothing wrong with that; he got standing ovations.
But some Israeli right-wingers contorted what he said to fit their own goals. For example, Danny Danon, a Likud member of parliament who is to become deputy defense minister in the new government, said last month that he welcomed Obama's planned visit because "the feeling persisted here that President Obama has not connected with Israelis on a visceral and emotional level."
And during Obama's visit, Danon drew an absurd conclusion from the president's remarks, saying "recognition of the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel" convinced him that Obama accepted Israel's "right" to continue building West Bank settlements. That's should be no surprise. On his own Web page Danon describes himself as one who "Thinks Right! Does Right!"
Of course Obama meant no such thing. He is an ardent foe of settlements, as are the leaders of every nation on earth that pays attention.
The truth is, however, Obama was the one who set off the dispute with Netanyahu, in 2009. That's when he urged Israel to freeze settlement growth beyond the several-month freeze already in place. But like every president since Jimmy Carter, Obama asked and Israel refused.
Settlements have been the major irritant between Washington and Jerusalem ever since.
Just as Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel on the first "apology tour" three years ago, the government announced plans to build 1,600 new apartments for Israelis in East Jerusalem, the Arab part of town.
Washington was furious. And a few days later, Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, held a conference call with Israel's consuls general nationwide and told them Israeli-American relations were in crisis, the worst in 35 years.
That was hardly the first time an Israeli government had used settlements as a cudgel.
But for Obama's trip, Netanyahu's government held back and made no similar announcements on the eve of his arrival. But Israel is a democracy, of course; the prime minister cannot control what private businesses do. And in the days before Obama's visit, a private developer began running ads in local newspapers for expensive new apartments in East Jerusalem, nestled in Palestinian neighborhoods.
Not a government project, but it still got a lot of attention, including a prominent story in the New York Times a few days before Obama arrived.
Some Israel experts like to say that it's time stop paying attention to settlements. Work out a peace deal instead, one that sets out boundaries and borders. When that happens, the settlement issue will take care of itself, just as it did in Sinai when Israel gave it back to Egypt in 1982. Settlers had to leave.
The problem is, while Israel looks at the first Palestinian government ever that's led by men who can be reasonable arbiters and negotiators, it's the Palestinians who are stuck on the settlement issue. Shortly after Netanyahu rebuffed Obama on settlements back in 2009, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, remarked that Obama "was the one who declared that settlement construction must be stopped. The United States says it, Europe says it and the whole world is saying it. Why should I not say it?"
Meeting with Abbas this trip, Obama reportedly urged him to back away from conditioning peace negotiations with Israel on a settlement freeze. Abbas declined to commit.
So now Jerusalem and Washington may have more cordial relations. But settlements will continue to be the main thing blocking any Palestinian peace deal.