President Obama on Wednesday delivered a rousing defense of Palestinian statehood, in a speech that is being billed as the centerpiece of his first visit to Israel since taking office in 2009. Obama's call to revive moribund peace talks to forge a two-state solution was reportedly enthusiastically received by the audience of largely young Israelis at the Jerusalem Convention Center (with the exception of a heckler).
Much of the discussion surrounding the trip has thus far centered on whether Obama can ease longstanding tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and win the trust of an Israeli public that is skeptical of his commitment to Israel's security. In his speech, Obama tried to put those misgivings to rest, using almost Biblical language:
Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel's right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere. Today, I want to tell you — particularly the young people — that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd. You are not alone.
He went to say that with its security assured, Israel must take bold steps to secure peace for future generations:
Look to a future in which Jews, Muslims, and Christians can all live in peace and greater prosperity in the Holy Land. Believe in that. Most of all look to the future that you want for your own children — a future in which a Jewish, democratic state is protected and accepted, for this time and for all time. There will be many voices that say this is not possible. But remember this: Israel is the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world. Israel is not going anywhere. Israel has the wisdom to see the world as it is, but also the courage to see the world as it should be.
He then proceeded to make the case for a Palestinian state, in remarkably empathetic terms:
The Palestinian people's right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes — look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own, living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student's ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.
Obama veered off script at this point, remarking on a group of Palestinians he had met earlier that day. "Talking to them, they weren't that different from my daughter; they weren't that different form your daughters or sons," he said. "I honestly believe that if any Israeli parents sat down with them, they'd say, 'I want these kids to succeed. I want them to prosper.' I believe that."
How was the speech received? In Haaretz, the left-leaning Israeli newspaper, Bradley Burston writes, "This will not be the same country after this speech":
This was the speech that these young Israelis not only needed but wanted to hear. A speech that radically redefined centrism in Israel, bringing it down to extraordinary common denominators in directions Israelis have learned to think of as diametrically opposed.
He spoke of security and peace as inextricably and necessarily linked, not a narrow choice between options, but a conscious choice for both…
[T]his is one way that change happens. An event like this, inspiration like this, does not in the end go to waste. It gives new strength to the world-weary and the habitually trashed. It changes momentum. It creates momentum. It does good. It makes way for better. [Haaretz]
By melding peace and security, Obama is not only seeking to reframe the terms of the debate — he is putting subtle pressure on Israel to live up to its democratic ideals, says Max Fisher at The Washington Post:
Obama is re-framing that old issue, and his speech, as a shift away from the old debate about what Israel has to do in order to keep its state, a debate grounded in decades of war, to the conversation Obama wants to have: If the U.S. can help Israel to assume that it will keep its state, then what sort of state does it want?
The answer for Israelis, of course, is that they want a Jewish democracy. That sets up Obama to argue, as others have done, that Israel can’t be Jewish and democratic if it continues to place the Palestinians under occupation. [The Washington Post]
However, the speech came just hours after Obama urged Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, to drop demands that Israel halt all settlement activity as a precondition for peace talks. The move represents a full-scale retreat for Obama, who began his first term with a hardline stance on new settlement building, only to be brushed back by Netanyahu. Indeed, Obama did not come to Israel with any new specific peace proposals, a sign that the peace process is not even at square one.
In that respect, while Obama has upped his rhetorical commitment to Palestinian statehood, he has drifted over the course of his first term toward Netanyahu's position. "President Obama's trip will, if nothing else, provide confirmation of a number of conservative critics' observations of his administration," writes Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post, "most of which his media flunkies have denied for over four years."