Four years ago during his first visit to the Middle East as president, Barack Obama not only snubbed Israel but gave a speech in Cairo to the Muslim world in which he made it clear that he viewed the plight of the Palestinians as morally equivalent to that of the Holocaust. In doing so, he didn’t merely elevate the Palestinian claim to statehood as his diplomatic priority but downgraded the Jewish claim to their homeland as purely a function of international pity in the aftermath of the slaughter of European Jewry. This slight was not lost on the people of Israel who regarded these statements as much as the fights the president picked with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu over the following years as evidence of his utter lack of sympathy for the Jewish state.
But after years of tilting the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians the president arrived in Israel today singing a very different tune. He may have come into the presidency determined to open up daylight between the positions of the United States and Israel and succeeded in doing so. But his opening remarks upon arriving in Israel today effectively closed the gap between the two countries to the minimum. Even more important, his recognition of Israel’s rights effectively dashed the hopes of many in the Arab and Muslim world that this president, especially after his re-election, would further downgrade the alliance between the two nations.
Barack Obama isn’t the first American president to stand with the people of Israel, but his speech today was important precisely because of the expectations that he has raised among those who hope to isolate the Jewish state and undermine its ability to defend itself. There may be many in Israel and in the United States who still regard Obama with skepticism–and with good reason. He may still be, as veteran peace processer Aaron David Miller memorably said, the first U.S. president in a generation that wasn’t “in love with the idea of Israel” and a persistent critic of both Netanyahu and the Jewish presence in Jerusalem and the West Bank. But his remarks upon arriving in Israel today show he may have learned from his mistakes.
The importance of Obama’s airport speech lies mainly in the fact that these are the words of the same person who went to Cairo University and spoke in a manner that gave much of the world the idea that the U.S.-Israel alliance was on hold. It might not have been significant had George W. Bush or Bill Clinton spoke of 3,000 years of Jewish history and of its citizens being the “the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah,” and to refer to the U.S.-Israel alliance as being “eternal,” but from Barack Obama this is remarkable.
This can be dismissed as mere rhetoric that can always be ignored or reversed at the whim of a president who has shown that he is confident that his cheerleaders in the mainstream press won’t hold him accountable. But they also have a power in and of themselves. When the world heard Obama downgrading the alliance with Israel, they drew conclusions that were dangerous to the stability of the region as well as to the security of the Jewish state. But when the president makes plain that even he regards the relationship with Israel as unbreakable and that the rights of the Jews to their “historic homeland” must be respected, that has great meaning too.
One would think that it wouldn’t be a big deal for a U.S. president to express his support for Zionism in the fulsome manner that Obama used today. But in doing so he sent a chill down the spines of Israel’s foes. The campaign to delegitimize Zionism and to regard any act of self-defense on Israel’s part as a war crime may have gained ground in recent years in Europe and on American campuses. But the willingness of the president to speak in this manner is a blow to the hopes of those who think Israel’s days are numbered.
Obama may say plenty tomorrow in his address to Israeli students that may upset some friends of the Jewish state. Given his history, the president’s critics have reason to wonder whether he is hoping to use any leverage gained by this trip to orchestrate pressure on Netanyahu to make concessions to the Palestinians. But given his present unpopularity in Israel, the best he can hope for out of this is to lower his negatives there. The idea that he can mobilize Israelis against Netanyahu isn’t realistic.
As much as Obama deserved criticism for his past record of picking fights with Israel and undermining its position in the world, today’s speech undid at least some of that damage. Even his fiercest critics must give him credit for that.
The following is the text of his opening remarks upon arriving in the Jewish state. Let’s hope Israel’s enemies and critics who regarded the Cairo speech as the beginning of the end of the U.S.-Israel alliance take it to heart.
I’m so honored to be here as you prepare to celebrate the 65th anniversary of a free and independent State of Israel. Yet I know that in stepping foot on this land, I walk with you on the historic homeland of the Jewish people.
More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.
Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages — to be “masters of their own fate” in “their own sovereign state.” And just as we have for these past 65 years, the United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend.
As I begin my second term as President, Israel is the first stop on my first foreign trip. This is no accident. Across this region the winds of change bring both promise and peril. So I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations, to restate America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors.
I want to begin right now, by answering a question that is sometimes asked about our relationship — why? Why does the United States stand so strongly, so firmly with the State of Israel? And the answer is simple. We stand together because we share a common story — patriots determined “to be a free people in our land,” pioneers who forged a nation, heroes who sacrificed to preserve our freedom, and immigrants from every corner of the world who renew constantly our diverse societies.
We stand together because we are democracies. For as noisy and messy as it may be, we know that democracy is the greatest form of government ever devised by man.
We stand together because it makes us more prosperous. Our trade and investment create jobs for both our peoples. Our partnerships in science and medicine and health bring us closer to new cures, harness new energy and have helped transform us into high-tech hubs of our global economy.
We stand together because we share a commitment to helping our fellow human beings around the world. When the earth shakes and the floods come, our doctors and rescuers reach out to help. When people are suffering, from Africa to Asia, we partner to fight disease and overcome hunger.
And we stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land. For even as we are clear-eyed about the difficulty, we will never lose sight of the vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors.
So as I begin this visit, let me say as clearly as I can –the United States of America stands with the State of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interest to stand with Israel. It makes us both stronger. It makes us both more prosperous. And it makes the world a better place. (Applause.)
That’s why the United States was the very first nation to recognize the State of Israel 65 years ago. That’s why the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes fly together today. And that is why I’m confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, it is forever – lanetzach.