Net Politics

03.19.13

Why Obama Will Address Israelis, Not Their Politicians

Two major critiques are levied at Barack Obama's visit to Israel: that it will not break new ground, least of all in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that it aims to address the people of Israel over the head of their parliament. On both counts, this will be no game-changer.

Fair enough. The U.S. president seems to arrive in Israel with little in his luggage other than a pair of ears. And yes, he could have addressed the Knesset. Except that his much-anticipated speech to university students and teachers is far more important. The young citizens' tweets and posts from that Jerusalem event may prove far weightier, in the long run, than anything Mr. Obama might accomplish with their leaders and legislators.

For something has changed dramatically in the last few years. Pundits and reporters seem to be ignoring it, because they are searching for novelty under the old streetlamps rather than the new.

Of course, Middle Eastern political climate and the chemistry of leaders are crucial factors. Optimism accompanied the early Clinton visits and the last Bush visit, while pessimism besets both the early and the current Netanyahu terms. Escalation with Iran may be looming, the Arab awakening has largely soured, and peace partnership with Abbas looks remoter than ever. But maybe we are looking for hope in the wrong places.

The Israel feverishly expecting the presidential touchdown is no longer the Israel that welcomed George W. Bush in January 2008. It is light-years away from the Israel frequented by Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s. The difference does not dwell in the intricate relationship between those visitors and the respective Israeli prime ministers. Yes, we know that Clinton loved Rabin, that Bush and Olmert got on well together, and that both Clinton and Obama are not Netanyahu's ideal teammates. But this is beside my point.

Take a close look at Israeli civil society. Delve into the buzzing blogosphere, the sizzling social media, the enormous new space for public debate and political activism that opened up in both our countries between 2008 and 2013. The United States and Israel are today the global leaders—one in size and sophistication, the other in sheer energy and measurable effectiveness—of online civic conversation. President Obama himself entered the White House, twice, on the waves of web-based support. No other nation has reached the level of net politics exercised, on a daily and hourly basis, among Americans and among Israelis. Have Mr. Obama's advisors and speechwriters noted the tremendous new weight of Israel's inner internet-life? They should.

In Jerusalem, Mr. Obama will be talking to young people who are neither listless cynics nor disaffected sofa-politicos. Many of them have marched in demonstrations and took active part in protest rallies, in the heady summer of 2011 and beyond. Our record of effective activism is—by comparison to every other recent social movement—stellar. Major new laws are already in place thanks to Facebook movements. Our freshest politicians come with a new agenda, which drastically shifts the balance of powers between government and the governed, between voters and elected legislators, between the citizen and public decision-making. Gatekeepers and watchdogs rub shoulders. The Knesset we recently elected is not exactly a haven of peaceniks and liberals, but many of its first-time members were directly sent there by Israel's new civil society. Over here, the distance between online participation and street-level activism has never been shorter.

Palestinians, too, are getting there. Palestine's web-democracy is still in its infancy, but at least on this turf Israel's neighborhood can prove a blessing. Net politics is likely to bring Israelis and Palestinians close precisely where geography, culture, separation walls and chauvinistic smokescreens have so far kept them apart. If any two nations must urgently launch a serious conversation above the heads of their leaders, these are the two.

In the foreseeable future, heads of states will no longer be able to speak to each other alone, behind closed doors, carefully filtering their public messages in press conferences for the conventional media. Whether they like it or not, leaders will be talking to each other's nations. Just the way societies and individuals are currently beginning to converse across traditional borders, around the globe. The politicians will have to take part, or risk marginalization.

Therefore, dear President Obama, by all means—launch a direct dialogue with Israel's citizens. You may not like all their messages, but they are tremendously keen to have your ear. And, while you are at it, please do some serious talking, too. Tell them time is running out. Tell them that true friendship does not thrive on an automatic pilot. Urge them to reflect on their own newfound strength and connectivity. The future of Israel and Palestine no longer rests solely in the hands of Netanyahu, Abbas, or even, with the greatest respect, in your hands. Citizens, in their new capacity as global fellow-netizens, will increasingly have their say. Tell them—trust me, they'll recognize the quote—that with great power comes great responsibility. The time of civil society has come, and few leaders are as capable as you are to join the discussion. Now this is the real game-changer.