OWL’S HEAD, Maine - Until just before President Obama bade farewell to Prime Minister Netanyahu, it was looking as if Obama's visit to Israel and the West Bank had been the proverbial dog and pony show, Obama-style: long on verbiage, short on results.
But in fact, the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement that he worked out at Tel Aviv airport was a significant accomplishment. It addressed the break in Israel-Turkey diplomatic relations when nineTurkish activists sailing to Gaza were killed by Israeli commandos the year before the Arab world exploded.
It's obvious that by the time Prime Minister Netanyahu offered Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan the necessary diplomatic apology, both countries, on opposite geographic ends of Syria's destabilizing civil war, had strong strategic interests in putting the Gaza incident behind them.
But it's no less obvious that Netanyahu needed a push to get where he knew he had to go. Obama saw it as an opportunity to enhance US prestige and interests, resolve differences between two allies, and make the Middle East a more stable place.
And seeing opportunities and seizing them is the essence of good leadership. So score a game saving three-pointer for Obama.
It was a game-saver, because for all the soaring eloquence from our rhetorician-in-chief, one had been left, prior to the tarmac diplomacy, with that deja vu feeling: "Here we go again; that man can't accomplish anything but he sure can give a good speech."
In fact, the rhetoric, including the extravagant sound bite that his oration before 600 Israeli university students produced, had been, at least for me, counter-productive. For what, after all, had we learned up until then from his three-day Israeli extravaganza? That when Obama’s inspiring voice is married to some noble flights of prose, it can obscure the fact that his diplomatic achievements are negligible? That American influence in the world has so declined we can't even find a way to get Palestinians and Israelis talking again?
Indeed, the more praise Obama got for his successful wooing of Netanyahu and Israeli youth, the more of an empty suit he seemed.
But even without the Turkish-Israeli mediation, that is an unfair conclusion. In their joint press conference, Netanyahu agreed publicly with Obama's stated belief that, if they decided to do so, "it would take Iran about a year" to build a nuclear weapon.
If you go back and look at the record, Iran has been -- in Israel's mind -- a year away from such an accomplishment for approximately the last 10 years. Early on, that was a threat. But over the past year, Netanyahu's timing had accelerated to the extent that an Israeli attack seemed possible, or even likely, by this fall.
Netanyahu's public agreement that Israeli intelligence was in sync on Iranian nuclear developments with their American counterparts, and that nothing precipitous was going to happen in the near term, was a significant achievement for Obama.
The Iranians are holding elections in a few months to choose President Ahmadinejad's replacement; and recent statements from Iran's Supreme Leader with regard to direct US-Iranian negotiations provide a possibility for further diplomacy. Our "all options are on the table" threat is nothing new, but emphasizing diplomacy and getting Israeli buy-in that the ultimate option is on hold well into next year is a fair accomplishment.
And more good news? In the context of the implicit acknowledgement in his speech to the students that a peace deal was a long way off, Obama spelled out the dilemma Israel faces: if there is no sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank, then the state of Israel will eventually have to choose between being democratic or being Jewish; it can't be both. Obama even quoted Ariel Sharon, hardly a peacenik, who had, some years back, observed, "It is impossible to have a Jewish, democratic state and at the same time to control all of Eretz [biblical] Israel."
That such a stark choice ultimately faces Israel is not news. Americans, and Israelis as well, have been saying it with increasing frequency, but it's an entirely different matter when the president of the United States spells it out explicitly in a major address in Israel. Nor are the Palestinians unaware of Israel's dilemma, which gives them little incentive to negotiate under current circumstances.
As well, European attitudes towards Israel are becoming increasingly negative, with popular boycott movements proliferating. And even in the United States, despite the Israel lobbies' strong hold on Congress, the Palestinian plight is being portrayed more sympathetically, as last week's cover story in the The New York Times Sunday magazine illustrated.
So, if movement on the Palestinian front was conspicuously absent, there were concrete achievements: Turkey and Israel, who will find themselves inevitably more involved in the dangerous spillover from Syria's collapse, are back talking; the threat of a near-term Israeli attack against Iran, and all that portends for the entire region, has receded, and while Obama has once again publicly endorsed a Palestinian state, this time it was done in a way that not just emphasized its legitimacy from a Palestinian perspective but its necessity from an Israeli one.
So much for the good news. The alternate reality is that in Netanyahu's new cabinet, the Israeli housing minister, whose portfolio includes settlement activity, is rabidly pro-settlement, believing Israeli Jews have a right to live throughout Judea and Samaria, as he terms the Palestinian territory, and the Palestinians have no legitimate claim to create a state there.
Secretary of State Kerry was back in the area hard upon Obama's departure hoping to initiate a process that moves the two-state solution forward. Who knows: perhaps he'll eventually come up with some face-saving way to get both parties back to the table. But talking is what they did for nearly 20 years. It produced no final solution. Nor will it now. Barring major -- and, in Netanyahu's world, inconceivable -- political concessions from Israel, the two-state solution is dead.
But the dilemma facing Israel that Obama spelled out is squarely on the table. Even as he re-affirmed the unbreakable bonds between the US and Israel, Obama, in a subtle way, warned Israel that its current policies could be its undoing. And eternal American friendship notwithstanding, there's nothing the US can do to prevent that.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.