Listening to and reading the first reactions to last week’s speech to representatives of Israeli youth in Jerusalem, it’s easy to see how little international commentators on this long-standing conflict understand Israeli society. Clearly Obama himself does understand it.
There was nothing revolutionary in what he said. He repeated the traditional position that every US administration has taken since 1967: the United States are and will remain the eternal ally of Israel because this alliance is based, above all, and beyond the fact of mutual interest, on the shared values which are found in the biblical message which is at the heart of these two democratic nations.
But simultaneously, the US reaffirmed, through the words of the President, that only the creation of a Palestinian state will ensure Israeli security, and condemned the occupation and continued settlement building, which will make the creation of that state impossible.
Nothing new then. But it’s all in the rhetoric. People have pointed out that Obama did not impose a settlement freeze as a condition for restarting negotiations. Whilst this is true, it is equally true that had he done so, he would not have been listened to by all those who have shown so much scepticism towards him during the last four years. No. Obama understands, more than any other politician on the world stage, that there are two things which are arguably the fundamental obstacles to peace: scepticism and fear, which lead to a closing in on oneself and indifference towards the suffering of the other.
Obama did not go to Israel in order to give lessons, but in order to listen – which he made clear before he arrived. In two days he used both gestures and words to charm and to conquer the Israeli public. He is one of the rare politicians who believe in the power of words. As a young senator he garnered attention during the 2004 Democratic Convention with a speech that heralded him as a great speaker following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy. Some Israeli political commentators unpicked his speech as though it were a sandwich: between two layers of words could be found what Israelis wanted to hear – their right to this land is anchored in Jewish history, the memory of the Shoah is rekindled by the threat of a nuclear Iran calling for their destruction, their need for security is justified by the instability of the region and the reality of their enemies’ threats, the bravery of their soldiers, the resilience of their people in the face of terrorism, the strength of their democracy, the richness of their technology and their culture, the guarantee of their alliance with their American brother…Between these two layers Obama inserted the bitter pill – for the first time an American president found the words to speak of the Palestinians’ pain and the legitimacy of their cause. Even Ahmed Tibi, the Arab Israeli member of the Knesset known for his repeated altercations with Jewish MKs and government representatives, acknowledged this congratulated the president during his live commentary on Israeli television. Tibi was astonished by the enthusiastic applause from the young Israeli audience every time the president spoke of the necessity of a Palestinian state. It was as though he had just found out what opinion polls have consistently shown – that the majority of the Israeli population is in favour of the creation of a Palestinian state.
How did Obama manage to bewitch the Israeli people? He did it not by criticising them, like a school teacher might, but by showing them his love. The writer A.B. Yehoshua said recently whilst on a trip to Paris that Israelis need to be shown love. And Obama did just that for two days.
On the eve of Passover, he spoke of his pride in having introduced the seder and the reading of the haggadah to the White House so that his daughters would learn the universal story of national liberation. He recalled how the story of the exodus from Egypt inspired the African-American civil rights struggle which was supported by large numbers of Jews, and quoted the words of Martin Luther King on the eve of his assassination, who said that, like Moses, he might not be able to accompany his people when they entered the Promised Land. All that was missing to accompany his speech was the husky voice of Louis Armstrong singing a negro spiritual in the Convention Center where Obama was speaking.
He recalled the words of a child whom he had met when visiting Sderot, who spoke to him of his fears every night that a missile might land on his house. He spoke of the victims of the Hezbollah terrorist attack in Bulgaria, and said that Assad, Hezbollah’s ally, would eventually be held responsible for the crimes he has committed against his own people. He spoke of the US opposition to a nuclear Iran, of the various options on the table and emphasised that the time for a diplomatic solution is not unlimited. And he spoke of his understanding of the Israelis’ need for security, insisting, in their own language, that ‘Atem lo levad’ – you are not alone!
Then he spoke of the future and of peace. He told these young people that he believes that the Israelis do want peace and that he understands the scepticism of those who no longer believe it is possible. He spoke of the courage of those who, like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, have taken risks for peace. He told them that could have simply expressed the traditional American support for Israel, but that he preferred to speak to them as friends. And then he emphasised the three essential points that together make up his position:
– Peace is essential to guarantee that Israel remains both a Jewish and a democratic country and to try to establish new relationships with other countries in the region.
– Peace is just and he recalled all the injustices done to the Palestinians under the occupation, calling on Jews to put themselves in their place. He emphasised that Israelis have a partner in President Abbas and his prime minister Salam Fayyad.
– Peace is possible but, putting aside plans and processes, he asked what each individual can do to rebuild confidence between both sides. He followed this by saying that no politician would ever take risks if he wasn’t backed by the people, and concluding with a call to arms: ‘It is up to you to make the changes that you wish to see.’ There was an echo of ‘yes you can’ in this speech.
Now that the magic has faded and everyone has sobered up, what next?
Before this visit, most commentators considered that its purpose was to align the Israeli and American positions on Iran. It’s probable that on this point, even bearing in mind the differences of opinion about the situation which Obama recognises, nothing will be done on either side without the agreement of the other. By contrast no one expected any progress on the Palestinian question, bearing in mind the composition of the new Israeli government in which the settlers’ lobby has a prime position.
Yet I am convinced that the real purpose of this visit was this speech, the speech of a man sincerely inspired, as he said in his conclusion, by the Jewish imperative of tikkun olam, the healing of the world. Addressing the people of Israel via its young people, President Obama took a gamble, which seems to have paid off more than he might have hoped of, to touch Israeli hearts without alienating the Palestinians.
In the Middle East, more than elsewhere, the emotions and needs of the people must always be taken into account. People can sweep away regimes, as we saw recently in Egypt, or make peace accords possible, as was the case after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. Perhaps one day we will see Obama’s visit in this light. We will say that this two day visit made a future possible. Soon Secretary of State John Kerry will return to try to set things in motion. Nothing will be possible without the backing of both sides. It is up to them to act and to us to help them on this difficult path.