President Obama's speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday marked a real turning point in this administration.For the first time since he began campaigning for the presidency back in 2007, Obama spoke about Israel with sensitivity and understanding — "from the inside out," as the saying goes.
Until now, Obama has often spoken of Israel with sympathy, but rarely with understanding. The president's speech in Cairo in 2009 hit the nadir. In that speech, the president explained the founding of Israel as a reaction to the European Holocaust — thus negating 2,000 years of Jewish exile and a half century of pre-Holocaust Zionism. The president referenced the Muslim religious claim to Jerusalem and the legend of Muhammad's "night journey" to the sacred Temple Mount — without any mention of whose Temple it was that sacralized the Mount in the first place.
Until now, Obama has often spoken of Israel with sympathy, but rarely with understanding.
Obama defenders pooh-pooh the importance of these verbal miscues. Repeating the old joke about Wagner's music, Obama backers argue that the president's Israel record is better than it sounds. That defense of the president's past actions misses the point. Obama's seeming indifference to Israel's story and his unmistakeable disdain for Israel's elected leaders has left Israel's friends in a state of desperate uncertainty about what the president might do in the future.
Those uncertainties and anxieties came to a head this spring and summer. The Palestinians had launched a new diplomatic initiative at the United Nations, a demand for a U.N. vote to recognize a Palestinian state, even in the absence of a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. For a long time, the administration communicated indecision about how it might respond. Would it veto at the Security Council? Probably yes. Would it work to mobilize allies to defeat a symbolic vote in the General Assembly, where the U.S. has no veto? Maybe yes, maybe no. Would the Palestinians face consequences for defying U.S. objections and proceeding anyway? Probably no. And so on.
Meanwhile, as the Arab Spring threatened to freeze into a future Islamist winter, Israelis in the summer and fall of 2011 were gripped by a jittery mood that left them extra-sensitive to ambiguous messages from the United States.
President Obama's speech to the U.N. on Wednesday for once eschewed ambiguity:
"America's commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable, and our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day. Let's be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel's citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel's children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than 8 million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile, persecution, and the fresh memory of knowing that 6 million people were killed simply because of who they were."
These words powerfully articulate the way Israelis feel and the way Israel's friends feel. It's pointless to talk about borders before Israelis know what kind of society they will face on the other side of those borders. It's beyond pointless to ask Israelis to make peace with a political entity, the Palestinian Authority, unless that entity has the power to deliver peace.
One of the lurking disagreements about Israel within American politics has long been the question of who is the true underdog in this fight. Israel's detractors see a regional superpower, aggressively subjugating weaker peoples. Israel's friends see a surrounded and outnumbered nation, whose right to exist is denied by one third of the planet — and whose actions are systematically misrepresented in the most murderous language, from Kuala Lampur to London.
Which perception is held by this president of the United States? Until now, the answer was always maddeningly elusive. At the U.N. on Wednesday, the president at last clearly took a side. The right side.
Obama's words are welcome. Yet they arrive late. Coming so late, they prompt the question: Where do they come from? From real conviction? Or from the pleadings of Democratic Party fundraisers? And what action do they portend — if any?