We talk Herzl, you talk peace: Ben Rhodes previews the trip


The White House on Friday posted this preview of President Obama’s Middle East trip this week, by Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser.

Taken with a couple of major league newspaper pieces, it adds up to a White House quid pro quo bid to the Israelis: We’ll make pleasant noises about the Jewish connection to the land, you make pleasant noises about peace.

In the preview, Rhodes hits notes, reviewed today in the Washington Post by Scott Wilson, that some Jewish leaders believe Obama missed in his first term, including the Jewish connection to the land of Israel.

Note Rhodes’ reference to Obama’s visit to Herzl’s birthplace. (In fact, Obama, who supposedly missed this note in his 2009 Cairo speech, has made multiple references since then to the Jewish connection to the land, including in his AIPAC speeches).

The notes on Israel’s Jewish connection that Rhodes hits are significant, because Rhodes, 35, has emerged as one of Obama’s closest advisers and is writing his speech to be delievered to a university student audience on Thursday, according to this profile of Rhodes in Saturday’s New York Times.

Which makes this bit from last Thursday’s pre-trip briefing conference call all the more interesting. My bold:

RHODES: Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, and in his speech in May of 2011, [Obama] has made this point that as governments in the region are more responsive to popular opinion and the aspirations of their people, it’s going to change the broader political dynamic in the region.

It’s obviously a good thing that the people of the region are seeking to express themselves politically, and insofar as they can make democratic progress in a range of ways across the region, the United States supports that process of political and economic reform.

A consequence of that, as the President has said, is that Israel, as it makes peace, is going to have to recognize the broader role of public opinion in peacemaking. 
In the past, the peace processes with a variety of countries and partners in the region were between Israel and individual leaders.  And as you move towards more democratic, more representative and responsive governments, Israel needs to take into account the changing dynamic and the need to reach out to public opinion across the region as it seeks to make progress on issues like Israeli-Palestinian peace and broader Arab-Israeli peace.

Interesting, because there’s been considerable back and forth over how far the president will push Israel on the peace issue. As I’ve noted, Obama’s been telling Jewish leaders that he’s not planning anything specific this time around; on the other hand, folks at J Street insist that they’ve been told by White House officials that Israeli-Palestinian peace will be a major second term issue, and they note that John Kerry, who said as much in his secretary of state confirmation hearings, is accompanying Obama on this trip.

My tentative takeaway: Obama’s not coming top Israel with specifics. But he’s not shying away from the process any time soon, and he expects the sides to step up.

Incidentally, the NYTimes delivers a squirt of Jewciness about Rhodes:

The son of a conservative-leaning Episcopalian father from Texas and a more liberal Jewish mother from New York, Mr. Rhodes grew up in a home where even sports loyalties were divided: he and his mother are ardent Mets fans; his father and his older brother, David, root for the Yankees.

“No one in that house agreed on anything,” said David Rhodes, who is now the president of CBS News.

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