President Obama gave a great speech in Jerusalem last week.
He promised again to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, and pledged undying moral and military support for the Jewish state. Only then did he urge Israelis not to forsake efforts to negotiate peace with the Palestinians. His rhetoric was so powerful that it elicited repeated cheers from about 1,000 Israeli students in the audience.
So, now what?
One can’t help but recall that Obama also gave a great speech to students in Cairo in 2009, aimed at winning Muslim hearts and minds. That speech is best remembered for failing to produce anything concrete. Can we hope for something more substantial to result from the president’s wooing of Israeli Jews?
The answer depends on how one reads Obama’s visit. If you expect concrete results from his impassioned call for peace with the Palestinians, the speech is likely to be a letdown. But if you look elsewhere for results, you could call it a success.
No question, Obama’s prime goal was to reverse the mistaken belief among Israelis that he is hostile to their country. Given his powerful endorsement of Zionism and American ties with Israel, he probably succeeded, even with the Israeli right wing.
Winning rave public notices helped advance Obama’s second goal: improving relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A better level of trust between the men is crucial to persuading Bibi to allow more time for “tough” U.S. diplomacy with Iran rather than launching a premature Israeli attack on Tehran’s nuclear program. Here, too, there were clear signs of success.
Ditto for Obama’s efforts to get both sides on the same page in dealing with the violence in Syria. Toward that end, Obama scored a diplomatic triumph by brokering an apology from Netanyahu for Israeli forces’ 2010 killing of nine Turks on the Gaza-bound ship Mavi Marmara. The killings froze relations between Israel and Turkey, and a thaw is crucial to devising a regional strategy for dealing with the Syrian regime.
But when it comes to reviving peace talks, Obama’s fine words are likely to produce minimal results. There are clear signs that he recognizes this.
One sign is that he chose to give the speech to Israeli students rather than the Knesset. No doubt Obama recognized that his appeal for progress on negotiations with the Palestinians would be met with hostility, if not boos, from many members of Israel’s right wing.
The president admitted that the chaotic situation in the Arab world provides a dicey backdrop for peace talks. He also knows that the Palestinian leadership is weak and divided, and that Netanyahu’s new coalition government is largely hostile to the idea of two states.
Some key Israeli ministers are strong advocates of increased Jewish settlement on the West Bank – or even its annexation – and have said they will pursue even more construction than in the past. Recognizing this reality, Obama dropped his insistence on a settlement freeze as a precondition for talks, which makes it hard for the Palestinians to sign on.
Given these realities, the president’s plea for renewed talks, while moving and trenchant, was almost wistful. In appealing to the next generation – the students – he quoted the hawkish former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: “It is impossible to have a Jewish, democratic state (and) at the same time to control all of Eretz Israel” – that is, historic Israel, which includes the Palestinian West Bank.
He urged these young people – and through them the wider public – to consider the world through the eyes of ordinary Palestinians. While insisting that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, he stressed that continued Jewish settlement on the West Bank makes it impossible to have a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.
But his effort to generate public pressure on Israeli leaders to engage in talks is likely to go nowhere. When it comes to Mideast peace, it has been leaders – Israeli and Palestinian, in the case of the Oslo talks; Israeli, Egyptian, and American in the Egypt peace talks – who led the way, encouraging their publics to follow. And the people-to-people contacts between Palestinians and Israelis that once assisted the process have virtually ended.
True, Obama has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to try to renew the peace process. He also suggested that his own 2011 proposal to focus first on borders and security be the basis for talks. But negotiating borders implies the need to remove Jewish settlements scattered beyond those borders – a concept that’s anathema to key members of Bibi’s governing coalition.
So consider Obama’s speech moving, inspiring, and correct in its arguments that an end to serious peace negotiations is dangerous to Israel. And consider him correct in arguing that continued Jewish settlement will eventually rule out even the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.
Yet by appealing to public opinion rather than to Israeli politicians, Obama indicated that he knows there is scant chance for serious negotiations – and is unlikely to pressure the two parties. That gives his eloquent rhetoric a pro forma quality, as if it is merely a cover for the real focus of his trip: Syria, Iran, and a reset of relations with Israelis. Most likely, this speech will be recalled, like the one in Cairo, as another missed chance for positive change.
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