Obama Strikes New Tone, Same Policies in Jerusalem

No clear peace path forward, experts say, despite good will between Obama and Netanyahu.

President Barack Obama is seen through the backstage curtains during his speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center in Jerusalem, Israel, Thursday, March 21, 2013.

President Barack Obama is seen through the backstage curtains during his speech Thursday at the Jerusalem Convention Center in Jerusalem, Israel.

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President Barack Obama, speaking both in Jerusalem and the West Bank Thursday, struck a new tone but promoted old priorities for achieving Middle East peace, experts say.

Obama, who has publicly rehabbed his rocky relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following both men's re-elections, continued to call for a two-state solution, which would establish a country for Palestinians.

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"Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine," Obama said.

Peace, Obama added, is possible but warned Israelis that true peace could only be achieved through negotiation.

"I'm not saying [peace] guaranteed. I can't even say that it is more likely than not. But it is possible," he said. "And let me say this as a politician — I can promise you this, political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see."

Obama did not offer any new vision or plan for how the two sides could move forward. He backed off from the United States' prior position that Israel must stop construction on all new settlements before negations could begin, but President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestine Liberation Organization has made no such concession publicly and the issue remains a major sticking point.

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Marc Gopin, director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, says the president struck an interesting combination by overtly working to reassure Israelis he was committed to their security but also not backing down from presenting a two-state solution.

"[The speech was] designed to hit all of the buttons that would make President Obama into a very strong Zionist in the way that he framed everything, but at the same time, he took the opportunity to stick to his guns about a very articulate and clear agenda about a two-state solution, and what a two-state solution means and the importance for peace for the state of Israel," he says.

Guy Ziv, a professor at American University and an expert on U.S.-Israel relations, says he was struck by how Obama directed his speech at the young audience before him and what he calls the 'silent majority' in Israel who support a two-state solution, something the Israeli government's ruling faction does not.

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"That's really a call on the Israeli people, on the young people, on the public to really push their own leadership, to take the peace process more seriously," Ziv says. "Survey after survey finds the majority of Israelis wants to see a two-state solution. [Obama's] learned – he's using different tactics, but the goals are the same and the policies are the same."

Experts are split on whether or not Obama's trip or speeches mark any change in the current standoff between Israelis and Palestinians.

Michael Singh, managing director at the Washington Institute, a D.C.-based think tank focused on U.S. policy in the Middle East, says from the outside it appears the political calculus has only cosmetically changed.

"Because his first term was so unsuccessful on this issue and there was such tension with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israel, just going and having a good visit is in a sense a success, because it gives him a chance to change the narrative that he is unfriendly towards Israel," he says.

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Gopin says it seems "something is happening."

"Obama's friendship, his presence there, this incredibly Zionist speech and at the same time sticking to a two-state solution – it's all very interesting and suggests movement is afoot," he says.

Obama travels to Mt. Herzl Friday, and is scheduled to lay wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin before having lunch with Netanyahu and leaving for Jordan in the afternoon.