WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s involvement in the tortuous Middle East peace process can be divided into three chapters, two of which opened with high-profile speeches to audiences of young people.
The first began four years ago in Cairo, where Obama called for a “new beginning” in U.S. relations with the world’s Muslims. The push for new peace negotiations that ensued ended in failure, followed by a second chapter in which Obama distanced himself from the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
Thursday’s speech in Jerusalem appeared to open a third chapter, putting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back on Obama’s agenda but in a considerably lower-key and less specific manner than in his first term.
Unlike the Cairo speech, in which Obama laid out proposals in seven policy areas, many of which he proved unable to deliver, the address to the Israeli public was built around three lines that emphasized changes in attitude.
The first expressed empathy with Israelis. The second urged them to empathize with Palestinians. The third implicitly described a role that Obama appears to see for himself and his administration.
Obama delivered the first of the three key lines in Hebrew – “Atem lo lavad” – then repeated it in English, “You are not alone.” The words, coming at the conclusion of a passage declaring that “Israel is not going anywhere,” were intended to reassure Israelis about him, personally.
Beginning at least as early as the Cairo speech, a large number of Israelis have harbored suspicions, or worse, about Obama. The fact that early in his presidency he traveled to Arab nations and did not visit Israel rankled.
After 16 years in which Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush repeatedly affirmed their support for Israel, many Israelis have reacted to Obama like a chill wind after a warm bath.
Obama’s strained relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and criticism of his government’s building of housing settlements in the West Bank left many Israelis feeling estranged. During preparations for the current trip, White House aides said a top priority would be to reverse that sentiment.
In the speech, Obama portrayed himself as “a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future.”
“This man is not an emoter-in-chief” like Clinton was, said Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. But in reassuring Israelis about his intentions, “he came pretty close.”
The second key line in the speech called on Israelis to recognize the Palestinian “right to justice,” not as an abstraction but in a personal way. “Put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes,” Obama said.
That line “took guts to say to an Israeli audience in Jerusalem,” said Robert Danin, a longtime U.S. diplomat in the Middle East and now with the Council on Foreign Relations.
Taken together, those two parts of Obama’s message boiled down to “I care about you – where are you heading?” Danin said.
The third line, coming late in the speech, appealed directly to the Israeli public over the heads of political leaders.
“Let me say this as a politician,” Obama said. “I can promise you this: Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see.”
Immediately afterward, commentators focused on whether that line was a challenge to Netanyahu. Some saw an effort to pay back the prime minister for what many White House officials perceived as his support for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign last year.
But as the trip has unfolded, Obama has gone out of his way to express friendship with Netanyahu. Moreover, the language he used directly echoed a theme that he often has expressed in his own political campaigns to describe his role. On domestic issues – including immigration reform and gun control – Obama has said that a president can push for important change, but only to the extent that the public demands it.
Transposed to the Middle East, the line put the burden for progress back on Israelis and Arabs, positioning Obama as a broker willing to help the two sides bring their own ideas to the negotiating table.