President Obama spoke to the Israeli people today, at the Jerusalem Convention Center. His remarks moved his administration toward the pre-Obama consensus views of the Clinton and Bush administrations, indeed at several points echoing Bush’s 2008 speech to the Knesset. But he presented a view of the chances for peace with the Palestinians that was far rosier than reality permits—or than he may really believe.
Obama began by correcting, as he had upon landing in Israel, his 2009 error in Cairo—where he linked Israel only to the Holocaust, and never to Biblical history. He rightly described the goal of Zionism as the wish “to be a free people in your homeland.”
When he discussed Iran, he stated that “time is not unlimited” for negotiations and flatly said, “Iran must not get a nuclear weapon.” “This is not a danger that can be contained,” he added. “American will do what we must” to stop Iran.
This was as tough as he has been on Iran, and it was good to hear these words spoken in Jerusalem. Whether they will persuade Israelis that there is a serious American military option remains to be seen in the opinion polls of the next few days.
On Syria he was weaker, and vague: “I have made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people or the transfer of these weapons to terrorists. The world is watching, and we will hold you accountable.” What does it mean to say “we will not tolerate it” and will hold Syrian officials accountable? Trials years from now in the Hague, or efforts right now to stop such moves? Given the continuing American passivity on Syria, Obama missed a chance to be more specific—and more persuasive.
On Israeli security more generally, in a very strong paragraph, he harked back to Bush’s line in 2008 that “Israel's population may be just over 7 million. But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong, because America stands with you.” Obama said this:
So that is what I think about when Israel is faced with these challenges – that sense of an Israel that is surrounded by many in this region who reject it, and many in the world who refuse to accept it. That is why the security of the Jewish people in Israel is so important – because it can never be taken for granted. But make no mistake: those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere. Today, I want to tell you – particularly the young people – that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd [you are not alone].
But on Israeli-Palestinian peace, Obama gave the speech he should have delivered in Ramallah, Cairo, Riyadh, and elsewhere in the Arab world. That is, he seemed to be trying to persuade Israelis to make peace proposals and take peace seriously—when, as he noted in the speech, Israel has made offers several times only to see them rejected by the Palestinian side. For example, he said, “Given the frustration in the international community, Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation.” This is a curious remark, for if peace proposals and taking risks for peace have in the past failed (and Obama noted this himself), what is Israel to do? It cannot force peace on the Palestinians; it takes two to tango and the Palestinians have for four years refused even to come to the table.
Speaking of Arab politics and populations today, Obama added, “No one step can change overnight what lies in the hearts and minds of millions. But progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin, while sidelining extremists who thrive on conflict and division.” But again, how is one to begin if the other side will not even negotiate? And would a compromise with the current Palestinian leadership, even if it were possible, in fact “sideline extremists” who view any such compromises as treason to the Arab cause? Might it not even energize them?
To be fair, Obama had told Palestinians earlier in the day that they should go to the table. He plainly took away the “settlement construction excuse” that his own administration had set up in 2009, telling the Palestinian leadership that they could not set as a precondition a settlement freeze that could be their goal in negotiations. But what is Israel to do if the PLO leadership does not take that advice, or comes to the table but is unwilling or unable to make serious compromises?
Obama was most persuasive when discussing American-Israeli bonds, and least persuasive in his descriptions of the Arab Middle East. In his remarks today he pictured an Arab world, and a Palestinian political system, yearning for peace with Israel through negotiated compromises. This ignores the vast ocean of anti-Semitism in the Arab world, and the inculcation of hatred of Jews and Israel in generation after generation of Arabs—including Palestinians. And it ignores the rising tide of Islamism in the region, which threatens to engulf all those political figures who would really like a compromise peace. The Arab world Obama described is a place far more desirous of, and far closer to, peace with Israel than the one Israelis actually see around them.
Obama urged Israelis to push their own government toward peace: “Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.” This may be taken as a swipe at the new Israeli government or at Netanyahu, but even if it is not he is again addressing it to the wrong audience. Israelis cannot “create the change they want to see” in the hearts of Palestinians, Egyptians, and other Arabs. “Now is the time for the Arab World to take steps toward normalized relations with Israel,” Obama said. And he is right, but does anyone want to take bets on how likely that is? At his press conference in Ramallah, Obama said, “Secretary of State John Kerry intends to spend significant time, effort, and energy in trying to bring about a closing of the gap between the parties.” Note who is missing in that sentence: Obama himself, who is apparently not promising to “spend significant time, effort, and energy” on this—because he has quietly made a judgment about the chances that is far more realistic than his speech.