A Commentary on President Obama’s Speech in Jerusalem

by andrewcagle


(Photo: Haaretz News. Click for full text and video.)

Friday afternoon, President Barack Obama addressed an audience of 2,000 Israelis at the Jerusalem Convention Center, the venue for his first speech in Israel. This purpose of this post is to examine the language used, points made and not made, and give some thoughts on what the rhetoric reflects. At this point, predicting any new policymaking decisions is premature. Further, on the issue of Israel and Palestine, the President’s previous words and actions have managed to accomplish the feat of disappointing and disaffecting both Palestinians and Israelis alike; drawing criticism from the left and right in the US, as well. Any flashes of hope for change in any new direction will be met with a chorus of skepticism. With that in mind, within the speech lie some new and brave words from the American president to the Israeli people. His three major themes are “security, peace, and prosperity.”

The audience for the President’s first major address in Israel reflected the focus of his message: defining the future. He spoke to the public, and to a young audience. In fact, towards the end of his speech, he says this: “Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.” It seems the exhaustion that anyone involved seeking a solution to this intractable conflict encounters has reached the president, as well. In essence, he is acknowledging the reality that Netanyahu and conservative leaders of Israel’s government are not viable partners for peace. The same goes for Hamas, and to a certain extent, Mahmoud Abbas. This isn’t just Obama talking. Palestinians in the West Bank will tell you first-hand the lack of confidence in their top leader.

Opening his speech, Obama continues, “But what I’ve looked forward to the most is the ability to speak directly to you, the Israeli people – especially so many young people – about the history that brought us here today, and the future that you will make in the years to come.” And on Friday, that message about the future comes down to this quote from the heart of his address, “Only you can determine what kind of democracy you will have. 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.”

Foundations of a nation

The beginning of Obama’s speech consists of what any listener would expect, an ode to Jewish history, tradition, and long journey of the nation of Israel, the Deuteronomic cycle. He praises Israel’s accomplishments in the modern era, and reinforces the promise of strong friendship between the US and Israel. But within his opening stanzas, Obama weaves in themes used to set up parallels between Israelis and Palestinians; he introduced the idea that the historic struggle and desires of the Jewish people is not so different from the experience of the Palestinian people now. “For the Jewish people, this story is central to who you have become. But it is also a story that holds within it the universal human experience, with all of its suffering and salvation.” He even makes the point indirectly that philosophy of Zionism is not compatible with occupation. “[Jews] found its full expression in the Zionist idea – to be a free people in your homeland.”

Once the President lays the foundation of common experiences, rather than differences, he addresses the subject of democracy and enlightenment ideals. Obama states that Israel is rooted in more than “history and tradition,” but it is also rooted in a “simple and profound idea: the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own.” This is significant. America is a nation founded on an idea, not tradition. Democracy is a philosophy of government based on principles and values. “And we are defined by a democratic discourse that allows each generation to re-imagine and renew our union once more. So in Israel, we see values that we share, even as we recognize what makes us different.” Obama places an emphasis on the reality that nations make conscious choices. These choices “define who we will be as a nation in this 21st century.” This speech, as much as anything, appears to be an attempt to spark a dialogue among the next generation of Israeli leaders about how they will define their nation and what choices they will make. What do you want Israel to look like? How will it survive? How will it have to be renewed?

Security and the open door

After what we could call the President’s “set-up”, he takes a short detour to talk directly about existential threats to Israel’s security. The president reinforces belief in the backing of the Iron Dome system for Israel as a measure to save lives, saying Israeli children “deserve to sleep better at night.” Good. Next is where the President leaves room open for interpretation through what he does not say. Not so good.

First, the president states that Israel cannot accept rocket attacks from Gaza, as he should. Following up with “[The US] have stood up for Israel’s right to defend itself.” Obama stops short of defining what constitutes “defense.” If not careful, defense can cross a line into the realm of offense. This is a a term that is contentiously debated and takes on a different meaning depending on what government, leader, or official you talk to.

Second, the President slips in a significant statement regarding the US role in Syria. The president draws a line between Hezbollah and “ally” Assad. Obama says the US will not “tolerate” use of chemical weapons or transfer of weapons to terrorists. “The world is watching, and we will hold you accountable.” One can speculate what zero tolerance and accountability means, but you can bet it means commitment of US military assets. Words are words, but doctrines, the root of policymaking, can be born from public address.

Third, regarding Iran, President Obama leaves all options open, stating, “As President, I have said to the world that all options are on the table for achieving our objectives. America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.” In the same turn, he urges resolve towards peaceful solutions, saying that “peace is far more preferable to war.” There are few people who would disagree with that sentiment, but the president failed to explicitly rule out a military strike. It is also important to keep in mind that the White House and the Pentagon have both been continuously firm on the stand that they do not support a unilateral support by Israel. However, that is not reemphasized here, and leaves the possibility of bilateral action open.

The Impasse of Peace

President Obama moves on to tackle the subject of peace, looking to the future and what it will look like for Israel. Arriving at the crux of his speech, he focuses in on peacemaking. Obama first acknowledges importance of honesty among friends and fact that “not everyone in this hall will agree with what I have to say about peace.” This is a big step for a president, and underscores that this is possibly the most candidly any US president has spoken about or to Israel, save Jimmy Carter in his years after holding office. He continues, adding, “But I want you to know that I speak to you as a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future, and I ask you to consider three points.”

Here are President Obama’s three points:

“First, peace is necessary.”

The president lays down this bold challenge: “You can be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future… the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine. ” If the ideals of democracy and civil rights did not resound, he cites demographics, the international community’s growing frustrations, specter of isolation, and advance of technology as rationale to ponder. Obama states that — while difficult — engagement, not isolation is what will bring peace, change the hearts of people, and sideline extremists. This is the hard reality for Zionism. A one-state solution can lead to an apartheid state with a limited life-span, or a non-Jewish democracy, with a probable Arab majority in the long run. For Israel to truly survive, it must honestly seek a two-state solution.

“Second, peace is just.”

Obama asks the Israeli audience to “put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes” going on to list various struggles of life under occupation. He deserves some commendation for that statement. “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.”

Not mentioning Hamas by name, Obama says that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with anyone dedicated to its destruction, while adding that Israel has “a true partner in President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad.” He mentions the difference between the peaceful West Bank of today and the chaos of the intifada in 2002 a decade ago, rejecting violence and pursuing nonviolent resistance. This is a reality that has been witnessed across the West Bank in communities pushed around by settlements and cut off by the Israeli separation wall. Through the stories of Bil’in, Budrus, and Jenin, Israel and the world have witnessed the adoption of non-violent resistance in the last decade, in search of a culture of peace.

“Third point: peace is possible.”

Making peace possible will require adaption by Arab states treatment of Israel and vice-versa. “Now is the time for the Arab World to take steps towards normalized relations with Israel.” This is the difficult, but necessary step that Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon must take, following the lead of Jordan. This is a regional conflict requiring a regional solution.

Obama next moves to an issue Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has been in staunch opposition to, “Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state.” The Palestinian leader has stood firm against this, due to the fact that 25 percent of Israel’s population are non-Jewish Israeli Arabs, and it eliminates the prospect fulfilling right of return for Palestinians from cities within Israel like Jaffa or Haifa. It is also highly debatable that an explicitly Jewish state runs contrary to democracy. We must also keep in mind that this is not something that even all of Israel agrees on. Currently, it is the wish of Netanyahu and the conservative ruling parties, but does not have full support of the Israeli public. Even less believe it should be a condition of a peace agreement. All that said, in a two-state solution, this is something that Palestinian leadership would need to let go of and allow Israelis to sort out domestically.

On the issue of settlements, Obama comes close, but fails to capitalize.”Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable– that real borders will have to be drawn.” What lacks here is the sobering fact that settlements are the number one obstacle to a real peace solution. Each new settlement construction project is not a step, but a giant leap in regression. It is not enough to freeze new construction, but all future plans must be halted. Forever. This area is one where the president repeats an old statement, already worn on the ears of Palestinians, to an Israeli crowd. The opportunity to call settlements what they are — the glaring plank in the eye of what could be attainable peace — was a missed one.

Closing his final point, he places hope in the young generation, hoping that they can learn to trust before learning how to mistrust. “Look at young people who have not yet learned a reason to mistrust, and those who have learned to overcome a legacy of mistrust that they inherited from their parents because of the simple recognition that we hold more hopes in common than the fear that drives us apart.” It is upon this hope that the president hedges his bets.

The inevitable future

Even with its points leaving something left to be desired, President Obama gave the rare, honest speech by a US President on foreign policy. At the end of the day, rhetoric is rhetoric; empty until filled with meaningful actions. In some senses, the speech is contradictory in nature. The president leaves much to be interpreted regarding how far Israel can go militarily and still receive America’s blessing or complicit silence. In the same stroke, he breaks new ground and employs brave language when addressing the issue of peace and justice regarding the Israelis’ conflict with the Palestinians. In a sense, he paints a picture of reality that many Israelis do not want to face head on: regardless of American support for Israel, the eventual outcome of the peace process will not be decided by American influence. Israel cannot exist in its current state indefinitely. The time is coming swiftly where Israel will need to make crucial decisions that define its future.

To follow up these thoughts, President Obama places the weight of leadership on Israel’s shoulders. “There will be many voices that say this change 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.” These tough and honest words are what Israel needs to hear. Part of what makes the language of this speech possible is shifting American and international public opinion on the issue of Israel and Palestine. The conflict is seen with a more critical eye by many. I see it as the conversation true friends have with each other. They don’t skirt uncomfortable conversations. They tackle hinderances to growth and prosperity, so that their nations can seize opportunities for a bright future.

In his second to last paragraph, the President ends, again placing the choice of how Israel will be defined in the hands of the next generation. “Today, as we face the twilight of Israel’s founding generation, you – the young people of Israel – must now claim the future. It falls to you to write the next chapter in the story of this great nation.”