One in a Series of Occasional Articles
Washington – Now that some time has gone by since President Obama delivered his historic speech to the Israeli people, we can look back and reassess some of the messages he intended to convey
In the immediate aftermath, there was some debate on how to interpret the address. Was it a “win” for Israel because Obama did not explicitly lay out a detailed political blueprint to solve the conflict? Some on the political right, both in Israel and the United States, made that argument. This was dispiriting because it ignored, or willfully disregarded, the singular focus and moral clarity that ran through the President’s speech.
Faced with Obama’s long and detailed statement on why a two-state solution is crucial for Israel’s security, its democracy and its spiritual wellbeing, it was strange the way that some commentators focused not on what he said but on what he did not say.
It’s true that Obama did not repeat his call for a settlement freeze; he alluded to but did not explicitly repeat his statement for a Palestinian state to be founded on the basis of the 1967 lines plus swops; he said nothing about the future of Jerusalem.
But the point of the speech was not to lay a peace plan on the table: it was to explain to Israelis why they should start to believe once again, in the president’s words, that peace based on the creation of a Palestinian state was possible, necessary and just.
This was not in that sense a policy speech. Instead, Obama was walking in the tradition of Biblical prophets like Isaiah and modern-day prophets like Martin Luther King in laying out the ethical necessity for political action.
Take this striking paragraph, which I will quote with the applause lines included:
“It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own – (cheers, applause) – living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements, not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day.
It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. (Applause.)
It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank – (applause) – or displace Palestinian families from their homes. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. (Cheers, applause.)
Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land. (Applause.)”
Yes it’s true that Obama did not lay out a detailed plan. He had never been expected to.
It’s true also that he did not exert pressure on the Israeli government to take any particular actions. Instead, he appealed directly to Israelis to pressure their risk- averse political leaders to take action in pursuit of peace.
The overwhelmingly positive reception to the speech both from Israelis and Americans, including American Jews, represented a significant political success for the administration.
Those who embraced his words will find it much harder to disavow them later. Attention now turns to Secretary of State John Kerry who has already begun working for a resumption of peace talks. It’s going to be hard – but Obama’s speech undoubtedly made his task easier.
By focusing on the vision rather than on the details, on the goal rather than on the journey, on the potential gains rather than on the political risks, Obama challenged Israelis and Palestinians alike to show real leadership and courage. So much of their interactions over the past three years have seemed smallminded and petty, largely or partly designed to embarrass or humiliate the other side. Now, they are summoned to a higher purpose.
When the talks run into problems, as they surely will, and when the parties get bogged down on this detail or that, they will be able to refer back to this moment. Israelis will know, because they have now heard in the clearest terms possible, that in Obama they have a friend committed to their safety and prosperity. And Palestinians will know, because they also heard, that they have a friend committed to justice.