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Obama plays a Long Game in the Middle East

Mark Mardell
North America editor
@BBCMarkMardellon Twitter

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe Barack and Bibi show may be awkward, considering how much they seemed to have loathed one another in the past, but it has produced results

Tourists may wander where they will, and when US President Barack Obama visits Jordan's glorious, ancient city of Petra, he will not make any loaded statement about America's attitude to the Second Century empire that thrived there.

Not so in Israel. There, it was not just words that had to be parsed. Sightseeing is message-making too.

Mr Obama went to look at the Dead Sea Scrolls - a reminder that Jews lived here thousands of years ago.

He went to the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, having declared a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land was redemption.

Before the visit, several American commentators urged him to learn to speak Israeli - now his fluency is almost frightening.

The Bibi and Barack show, a series of awkward joshing jests between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr Obama - two men who had given every impression they loathed each other in the past - may make the squeamish squirm.

But faking it can lead to feeling it. Mr Obama has already won an apology to the Turkish prime minister from Mr Netanyahu for the 2010 raid on a flotilla of Gaza-bound activists, and there is some hope he might do something to further the possibility of peace talks.

But Mr Obama's embrace of a word - Zionism - will have other results too.

For some in the region it is not the expression of a dream but a deadly insult to be spat out.

The long game?

Mr Obama knows that. He knows the Arab world already felt he had let it down. Now he has confirmed what they feared he was: an American president.

But - and this is typical of Mr Obama - he seems to feel that now that he has explained it, Israelis will get it. The values of Zionism are universal: a people deserve freedom, deserve a land. Get it? Not. Just. You.

Mr Obama has huge faith in the power of his own words. That is not said in simple mockery, but sometimes he seems to be happier as a prophet than as politician.

One of his favourite quotes, from civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr, is: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Mr Obama seems never happier than when tugging on that moral arc, even if it springs back in his face.

He urged young Israelis to tell their politicians to show courage - he said exactly the same to the American people recently, for instance about outlawing assault rifles, an attempt that has just fallen at the first Senate hurdle as he surely knew it would.

In Jerusalem he observed, rather ruefully I thought, that King, like Moses, never got to see the promised land.

Neither cynics nor partisans fully understand the magnitude of Mr Obama's ambition - nor the length of his game.

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