Barack Obama acknowledges the crowd after his speech last week at the Jerusalem Convention Center.
After a couple of days for careful reflection, it's clear: Barack Obama gave an amazing speech. The president of the United States stood in a hall in Jerusalem, and with empathy and with bluntness that has been absent for so long we forgot it could exist, told Israelis: The occupation can't go on. It's destroying your own future. And besides that, Palestinians have "a right to … justice" and "to be a free people in their own land."
If you don't think this is a breakthrough, you are letting naïve pessimism overcome realism. Yes, it's true that one speech will be worth nothing if not followed by intense American diplomacy. That comment has become banal. A realistic assessment is that Obama's visit, and the speech, were the opening act of an American diplomatic effort—a near perfect opening.
The first breakthrough was in method: Obama started by negotiating with the Israeli public. The choice of venue, an auditorium full of university students rather than the Knesset, was not a glitch, as many people thought beforehand. The venue was the message: The politicians have been too slow, so I'm stepping around them to talk to normal Israelis first.
The recognition that diplomacy takes place outside closed rooms, that the diplomats will offer only what they think the voters will accept or the public will demand, has come too slowly. Had Bill Clinton thought of this before Camp David, had Obama himself thought of this before the failed effort in his first term to get Netanyahu and Abbas negotiating, we might be in a better place now. The past mistakes are worth pointing out—as evidence of how big the change is.
Obama really shouldn't have needed all the AIPAC-style professions of support for Israel in the first half of his speech. By the same measure, he shouldn't have had to publish his birth certificate. But just as the birther lie was out there, was getting in the way, the canard that Obama was anti-Israel was out there, cultivated by Benjamin Netanyahu and by Israeli journalists who got their stories on U.S.-Israel relations from the prime minister's office.
Yet even the first piece of the speech wasn't quite the shmaltz it seemed to be. Obama told Israelis that he understood their fears. That was necessary before challenging the fears. But when he said in Hebrew, "You're not alone," he was not just offering support. He was directly challenging the narrative of fear on which Benjamin Netanyahu's politics are built. "Chill," Obama was saying. "It's not 1938. You are not about to be wiped off the map." And therefore, he was saying, you can consider the internal threats to Israel's future, the damage done by occupation, and you can make peace.
The most direct, powerful part of the speech was when Obama said that the Palestinians' "right to justice must also be recognized," when he told Israelis that settlement, and roadblocks, and settler violence are unjust. No American president has dared state that stark message before an Israeli audience before—or before an American one. To underline it, he borrowed the line, "to be a free people in our land," directly from the Israeli national anthem. "Palestinians," he said, "have a right to be a free people in their land." The words that define your story of yourselves, that move you even when you are tired of them and think they are kitsch, Obama suggested to Israelis, are the words that should help you empathize with Palestinians.
That piece of the speech had another audience, not present in the hall. In the language of Palestinian politics, the word "justice" contains a world of hurt, shame, and hope. It is the shorthand for everything the world should recognize and has not. A U.S. president speaking to Israelis of the Palestinians' right to justice was an act of American recognition that Palestinians haven't heard before. Perhaps those few sentences were not enough to balance the rest of the speech as Palestinians heard it. But they announced a greater degree of balance than has been present before in America's attitude toward the conflict.
The weak point in the speech came when Obama told Israelis that Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad are partners for peace. This needed to be said. It challenges the success of Israeli politicians in convincing their voters that they'd make peace if only there was someone to talk to. The problem was that Obama didn't say it with the kind of repetition and emphasis needed for it to register strongly in memory.
At one point, Obama departed from his prepared text and inserted a few improvisational sentences about young Palestinians he'd met that morning in Ramallah. I suspect he hoped to make another insertion: a statement that he'd met that morning with Abbas, who said he was ready to sit down for negotiations, without delay. Abbas didn't give him that promise. He insisted on a freeze on settlement building as a precondition.
In principle, Abbas's demand is entirely justified. Building houses in settlements is a unilateral Israeli action aimed at undermining negotiations. If talks fail, the houses will still remain. But at this moment, whether he demands a freeze as a precondition or doesn't, the building will continue. Netanyahu has enough support in his coalition to resist a freeze as a precondition to talks. But if his government has to make decisions on borders, Jerusalem, and security arrangements for peace—if it actually has to negotiate—it is likely to disintegrate.
Netanyahu needs Naftali Bennnet's party of the religious right, Jewish Home, to keep a majority in parliament. But he needs the centrist Yesh Atid just as much, and there are Knesset members in that party who are committed to a two-state agreement. Trying to zigzag between center and right in his classic style, Netanyahu will satisfy neither. The collapse of his government and an election held as a referendum on peace are Abbas's best hope for stopping the bulldozers. He should help Obama seize the opportunity.
Yet to continue to repeat all the reasons that a process can't work because it hasn't worked before is to take the naïve, pessimistic view that change never happens, that new methods never work, that people are trapped by history and can't resolve conflicts. If that naïve attitude were true, Barack Obama would never have had the opportunity to speak as the president of the United States.
One speech doesn't make a peace process. But as the beginning of a process, this speech was a revolution.
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