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Obama Moves the Needle in the Middle East

There have been two significant breakthroughs as a result of President Obama’s trip to the Middle East. First, as most of the news outlets are reporting today, President Netanyahu picked up the phone to apologize to Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the flotilla issue. The New York Times writes:

In the call, Mr. Netanyahu expressed regret for the raid, which took place as Israeli troops were enforcing a naval embargo on Gaza, and offered compensation, Turkish and Israeli officials said. And after years of holding out for a public apology for the deaths, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accepted Israel’s gesture in the phone call.

Afterward, officials from both countries said that diplomatic relations had been fully restored and that ambassadors would be reinstated.

This is most welcome news. Any progress on narrowing the rift between Israel and Turkey is very important if there is to be any hope of stabilizing the Middle East. Israel and Turkey, despite differences, have a lot of interests in common: Syria and Iran in particular draw them together. They have come close to resolving the flotilla issue before, and by all accounts the gaps between them were not all that wide. Nevertheless, to the extent President Obama helped to directly facilitate this diplomatic opening, he is to be applauded.

The other important breakthrough was President Obama’s speech in Israel. Its significance was less in the specifics of what he said and more in the way he said it. The breakthrough, in a sense, was the President’s own coming to terms with the realities of the Middle East.

In his first term, Obama seemed to have bought into the theory that pressure rather than love moves Jerusalem. He seems to have changed his mind on this. He has gone back to the more traditional way the US has worked (often effectively) to nudge Israel into a more forthcoming stance on peace negotiations: love, not criticism. Israelis are more willing to think creatively about the Palestinian issue when they feel the US really does stand behind them—and also really does want some progress toward peace. Figuring this out is the first step for presidents who want to have a positive impact on this situation.

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