Obama’s Tough Love for Israel

He billed his first presidential visit to Israel as a listening tour, but it turns out Barack Obama is doing quite a bit of speaking as well.

On his first day in the Holy Land, the president was all about the love:

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.”

But in his speech on Thursday — a long, wide-ranging address in Jerusalem’s convention center that drew a crowd of thousands and inspired a rousing standing ovation  his message was more subtle, and more constructive. After unequivocally guaranteeing American support for the Jewish state and rejecting all those who oppose Israel’s right to exist ("Israel's not going anywhere"), the president asked Israelis to consider the plight of their Palestinian neighbors:

But the Palestinian people's right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes  look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student's ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.

This message of reciprocity was particularly poignant for an Israeli audience who recognized in Obama’s appeal the final line of their national anthem, “Hatikva”: “lehiot am hafshi be’artzeinu” — “to be a free people in our land.” How can national political autonomy be the preserve of one people in Palestine, and not the other?

And then, with a tear in his eye, Obama related an anecdote from the morning  a story that led him away from his script.

I’m going off script here for a second, but before I came here, I met with a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22. And talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons. I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say,

I want these kids to succeed; I want them to prosper. I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do. I believe that’s what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them. I believe that.

As you can see in the video below (at 31:37 and beyond), the Israeli audience cheered this message. They embraced, with enthusiastic applause, the idea of empathy for their neighbors.

Now, as I argued at the Economist a few days ago, U.S. presidents, for all their influence, have never been able to force a peace agreement when one or both of the parties are unwilling to budge. But given his constraints, President Obama is doing his job, and he is doing it well. "Continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace," he said on Thursday. The only solution to the conflict is "two states for two peoples." Obama put the choice starkly to the Israeli audience:

You can be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future. Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.

This is exactly the tough love that Israel and the Palestinians need.

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