Big Speech

Obama to Israel: Ball’s In Your Court

Forgoing Israel’s Parliament, Obama took his big speech directly to the people, telling them democracy wasn’t possible without an independent Palestine. Eli Lake reports.

In a speech that was one part Zionist ideology and one part real talk, President Obama made the case that Israel must use the coming months and years to negotiate the creation of an independent Palestine and an end to the conflict.

The big speech from Obama had no specifics, and it was addressed to an audience of mainly students gathered at the Jerusalem International Convention Center—not quite the Knesset, or Parliament, where George W. Bush spoke during his only visit to the Jewish state as president. But the speech was also pointed in making the case that Israel can’t be a true democracy if there is no Palestine.

“Now only you can determine what kind of democracy you will have,” Obama said. “But remember that as you make these decisions, you will define not simply the future of your relationship with the Palestinians—you will define the future of Israel as well.”

This politically difficult message was delivered during a visit in which he reset his strained relationship with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In the speech itself, Obama showed a fluency in Israel’s history and praised the country’s founders for achieving a Jewish homeland.

When other world leaders, such as former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, have said that Israel must choose between settlements and democracy (or as Carter has called it, “peace and apartheid”), some in the pro-Israel community in the U.S. and the Israeli public rejected the concern as mean-spirited meddling. Perhaps conscious of that history, Obama incorporated quotes from former Israeli leaders like Ariel Sharon, a general who for years was one of his country’s most ardent supporters of the settler movement.

Indeed, Obama said he was telling Israelis these things because he is a good friend and not a false friend. “Politically, given the strong bipartisan support for Israel in America, the easiest thing for me to do would be to put this issue aside, just express unconditional support for whatever Israel decides to do,” he said. “That would be the easiest political path. But I want you to know that I speak to you as a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future.”

The speech quickly drew praise from left-leaning Israel lobbies in the U.S. such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now, a sister organization of the Israeli peace movement, Shalom Akhshav. At a state dinner in Obama's honor, Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, praised Obama’s speech. “I was moved by the way in which you spoke to the hearts of young Israelis,” he said.

The location of the speech and its theme were no accident. White House officials said Obama wanted to deliver a message directly to the Israeli people, as opposed to Israeli leaders. Recent Israeli elections have seen the near evisceration of the old peace camp as exemplified by the Labor Party, the original party of the state’s founder, David Ben Gurion. Meanwhile, political parties that have concluded that peace with the Palestinians is not possible in the near term and support the construction of settlements in the West Bank have gained ground.

Udi Dekel, a former head of the Israeli negotiating team for the last round of peace talks that began at Annapolis, Maryland, during Bush’s second term, says opinion polls of Palestinians and Israelis show that while most support a resolution to the conflict, 60 percent to 70 percent don’t believe it’s possible. “Obama wanted to convince young people to support peace,” says Dekel, “because the people are needed to push the leaders to make the hard decisions. They won’t do it with out that pressure.”

Obama appears to be directing that pressure at Netanyahu, who has pursued initiatives aimed at improving the economic conditions of Palestinians, but has only reluctantly gone along with Obama’s urging to create more openings for peace talks. Netanyahu did agree in 2009 to a settlement freeze for 10 months, but his government has also expanded settlement construction. At the same time, Netanyahu has lifted many restrictions on goods flowing into Gaza after Israel imposed a blockade on the strip of land, now controlled by Hamas, a Palestinian group that officially rejects peace negotiations.

Netanyahu and others in his government have said the time is wrong for a peace process because of the wave of unrest sweeping the region. The new Egyptian government after the fall of Hosni Mubarak is led by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi. He recently told a group of U.S. senators that Jews in America control the media. Syria is engulfed in civil war. Jordan, Israel’s closest friend in the region, has suffered convulsions of popular protest as well.

In his speech, Obama urged Israelis to see the instability in the Middle East as an opportunity. “It is tempting to turn inward, because the situation outside Israel is so chaotic,” the president said. “But this is precisely the time to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve for peace. The days when Israel could seek peace with a handful of autocratic leaders—those days are over. Peace will have to be made among peoples, not just governments.”

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When some in the audience began shouting, Obama didn’t beat. “I have to say we arranged for that because it made me feel at home. I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I didn’t have just one heckler,” he said. At another point Obama went off script and talked about Palestinian teenagers he met Thursday in Ramallah. “Talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters, or your daughters or sons,” he said. “I honestly believe if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, ‘I want these kids to succeed. I want them to prosper.’”