It is usually the case that the more a presidential speech is hyped, the less that is genuinely new in it. At least with respect to policies on Israel, that was the case today, at least on the face of it. His two main demands of Israel — stop settlement construction and accept the two-state solution — have been made explicit over the last weeks and months.
Was there anything interesting between the lines? Two minor points worth mentioning. Obama’s citation of Israel’s historical background seems to affirm the Arab narrative that Israel was created as a response to the Holocaust, and that therefore Israel’s militancy is making Palestinians pay for Europe’s crimes. But this fails to explain Israel’s relentless efforts at peace initiatives, even bad ones, and it fails to take into account much of the Arab world’s ongoing violent hostility to Israel as a reason for Israel’s defensive posture. But Max is right that it could have been much worse. There no question that Obama affirmed a special relationship with Israel, sending a signal to the Muslim world that their expectations should not get too high as to whether America is effectively switching sides, to abandon Israel and support the Arabs instead.
Second, and more important, is the weird language about settlements:
The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.
What is unclear here is whether he is referring to new construction, new settlements, or the very existence of settlements at all — meaning, are the homes of a quarter million Jews in cities and towns, including throughout Jerusalem, now illegitimate? This would mean a radical break from previous American policy. What on earth could the phrase “It is time for these settlements to stop” mean? Stop what? Existing? Expanding? In so carefully crafted a speech, the ambiguity here seems deliberate.