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Published: Tuesday, 3/26/2013

Low expectations

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a  news conference last week in Jerusalem. President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a news conference last week in Jerusalem.

President Obama’s first trip to Israel last week is being hailed in the United States as a triumph of low expectations. But America is the wrong prism though which to view a journey that promised — and delivered — little.

Four years ago, Mr. Obama called for urgent action to advance the Mideast peace process. The urgency remains real, but there has been no action since. Last week, the President merely chided both sides for their lack of movement.

Four years ago, Mr. Obama called the situation intolerable. It has not become less intolerable. Israel continues to occupy Palestinian territories. Hamas militants continue to lob missiles into Israel. Yet the President’s advice to university students in Israel — a group that polls show supports peace — was a tepid “put yourself in their shoes.”

Four years ago, Mr. Obama said the construction of Jewish settlements undermined peace. That construction has continued, and even escalated, threatening the viability of a Palestinian state. Yet last week, the President told Palestinians not to make a freeze on settlement-building a precondition of talks.

Little of substance was accomplished last week. President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked like a divorced couple at a wedding who must pretend they get along. There were no new initiatives, no pressure on either side to restart peace talks.

The trip achieved what it set out to do: demonstrate to Republicans, Israelis, and lobbies such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that President Obama is Israel’s friend, while not abandoning Palestinians or the two-state solution.

Mr. Obama’s side trip to Bethlehem could stand as a symbol of his Mideast tour. The President was whisked to the Biblical city from Jerusalem by motorcade. He made a quick stop at the Church of the Nativity, built above the grotto where Jesus of Nazareth reportedly was born. Then he was on his way, having paid homage to his religious roots.

Outside his motorcade, tensions simmered. The security wall he passed through from the Israeli capital to the West Bank city excludes voices as well as terrorists, and contributes to divisions between Israelis and Palestinians.

Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, was largely deserted when Mr. Obama arrived. Earlier, it was the site of protests when officials preparing for the visit removed a monument to ancient Palestine that does not include Israel.

Viewed through the eyes of Israeli and Palestinian hard-liners, Mr. Obama’s trip was a success because it required nothing of them. Viewed from the perspective of the two-thirds of Israelis and Palestinians who in recent polls said they support a peace deal and a two-state solution, the President’s visit was a disappointment because it required nothing of them.

These perspectives matter. Former President George W. Bush decried “the soft bigotry of low expectations” in American education as he advocated higher performance standards. President Obama’s Mideast policy has a similar problem.

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