President Barack Obama flew out of Israel in a duststorm on Friday, leaving behind a trail of symbolic gestures and fine oratory that should help preserve the status quo at a time of regional upheaval.
In an unexpected diplomatic flourish, he also facilitated a surprise telephone call between the prime ministers of Israel and Turkey, putting two U.S. allies firmly on track to revive a once close relationship that had become badly frayed.
Obama set such low expectations for the three-day trip that he can easily proclaim it is mission accomplished, having wooed sceptical Israelis, eased their fears over Iran and shown Palestinians that he had not forgotten their aspirations.
True, many Palestinians remained disillusioned, feeling that Obama had buckled to Israeli pressure and backtracked from his previous demands for a halt to Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank on land they want for a future state.
But after a bruising first term of failed Middle East diplomacy, Obama’s prime concern seems to be that the situation does not get any worse, while keeping alive slender hopes that a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is still possible.
“This visit marks a resumption of American attention to the conflict, which is very important after two years of utter absence from the scene,” said Ghassan al-Khatib, an academic and a former Palestinian government spokesman.
“It probably won’t lead to any new negotiations, which in any case would be meaningless given the huge gulf between the two sides. But it might bring some accountability to the Israelis.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared highly satisfied by the public show of joviality displayed by Obama during their meetings, dispelling the frosty scowls and sniping that marked encounters over the previous four years.
“The atmosphere was much better than in all their meetings before,” said a senior Israeli official. “He gave the impression that he really wanted to start afresh,” he said of Obama.
Obama has already spent more time talking to Netanyahu than to any other world leader, according to the White House, and the pair put several more hours on the clock through this week.