President Obama continued his charm offensive with the people of Israel with his speech to an audience of students in Jerusalem that reaffirmed his support for Zionism and Israel’s “unbreakable” alliance with the United States. But however far he may have gone toward reassuring Israelis of his concern for their security during this trip, many of the headlines today will be devoted to the part of his address that attempted to prod the Jewish state to recommit to the peace process.
The speech demonstrated that, despite the new warmth between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, there is still considerable distance between their positions. But even the section devoted to advocacy for a renewed peace process showed that there is even greater distance between the United States and the Palestinians.
In a transparent effort to go over the heads of Israel’s government by appealing to the public, the president made the argument that peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel were both just and necessary to secure the country’s future. He urged the hand picked left-leaning audience of students to pressure their leaders to pursue peace. He spent the first half of his speech extolling the legitimacy of Zionism as well as highlighting the threats to its existence from terror groups and hostile neighbors as well as Iran. But his clear purpose was to establish his bona fides as a friend of the Jewish state primarily in order to give him the standing to advocate for a reinvigorated peace process in which the country would once again take “risks for peace.” This was both clever and effective and there’s no doubt that, as many pundits seemed to say in its aftermath, is was a better exposition of the liberal Zionist position on the peace process that had been given in the country in many years.
But however much this may have encouraged Israel’s moribund political left, the president’s warning that “neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer” to the question of how Israel was to navigate the future ran aground on his assurance that the goals of the Arabs who attended his 2009 Cairo speech were similar to those of the Israelis who heard him today in Jerusalem. Obama’s high-flown rhetoric about the virtues of coexistence and the need to establish two states for two peoples was widely applauded by the Israelis. But he is tragically mistaken if he really thinks the Muslim Brotherhood supporters who heard him in Cairo or most Palestinians have assimilated this ethos of live and let live.
The president may well be right that the ideal solution to the conflict is one in which the Palestinians have a state alongside Israel that will give them a focus for their national identity without threatening their Jewish neighbors. Were that a possibility, he would be correct in assuming that the vast majority of Israelis would embrace such an option even if, as was the case with the three offers past Israeli leaders made to the Palestinians, it involved far-reaching and possibly dangerous concessions. But his assumption that the Palestinian Authority—which rejected those three offers—let alone the Hamas rulers of Gaza or the Palestinian population for whose support both compete share this desire for two states is unfounded.
The president eloquently and rightly made clear that the United States would never abandon the Jewish state or allow its enemies to prevail:
So that is what I think about when Israel is faced with these challenges – that sense of an Israel that is surrounded by many in this region who reject it, and many in the world who refuse to accept it. That is why the security of the Jewish people in Israel is so important – because it can never be taken for granted. But make no mistake: those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere. Today, I want to tell you – particularly the young people – that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd [You are not alone].
This was comforting rhetoric to Israelis and their friends. But the problem facing those who want to solve the conflict is not whether the United States can reassure Israelis that they have nothing to fear but whether it can persuade the Palestinians to redefine their national identity in such a way as to be able to accept a solution to the conflict that does not involve Israel’s disappearance.
In telling Israelis that they were now the most powerful country in the region, he seemed to be saying they should stop thinking of themselves as victims and embrace a future in which their economic prowess can enrich the region. But by speaking of a future in which Israel could be “the hub for a thriving regional trade,” it sounded as if the president was channeling Israeli President Shimon Peres’s fantasy of a “New Middle East” that fueled the post-Oslo euphoria of the 1990s that was debunked by the reality of the Yasir Arafat-ruled terror state the peace accords established.
Unlike in many of his previous comments about the conflict, the president acknowledged that Israel had already taken risks for peace and had been answered with anti-Semitism, terrorism and war. If, as he also noted, Israelis have grown skeptical about the prospects for peace, it is not because they lack the will for it or the idealism to which his remarks appealed, but because they know their foes have not given up their goal of Israel’s destruction.
In Jerusalem, Obama was preaching to the choir about peace. But if he thinks Israelis will rise up and force the Netanyahu government —which was chosen in an election in which the vast majority of the electorate prioritized domestic issues over the futile quest for a solution to the conflict—he’s dreaming. The Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers that heard Obama in 2009 at a stronghold of anti-Semitism and rejection of Zionism may all want a good future for their families just like the Israelis. But they want the future to be one in which there is no Jewish state. The same is true of Hamas and, despite the statements in English to the Western press by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, it is true of Fatah and its sympathizers as well.
Though this speech will, to some extent, satisfy those who continue to long for the American president to “save Israel from itself,” it’s not likely it will have much of an impact on the Palestinians or Muslims and Arabs who agree that Israel and the United States are united by common values and despise both for that very reason.
We can all hope that, as the president said, peace will begin “in the hearts of the people.” But if that was his goal, he had the wrong audience. What Palestinians heard was not so much his advocacy for their rights and statehood as the president’s affirmation of America’s commitment to Israel’s future as a Jewish state whose security will not be undermined. If that will cause some of them to give up their quest for its destruction, that is all to the good. But as much as this speech demonstrated that there are still plenty of differences between the positions of Obama and Netanyahu, it also made clear that there is even more distance between those of the president and a Palestinian public that has yet to accept Israel’s legitimacy.