Over the past year, there has been a distinct pattern in the speeches world leaders make when they come to Israel, either addressing the Knesset or in other forums.
The pattern was evident in US President Barack Obama’s address at the Jerusalem International Convention Center last March, in French President François Hollande’s speech to the Knesset in November, and in European Parliament President Martin Schulz’s speech to the Israeli parliament last month.
The speeches start with warm words of support and admiration for the Jewish state, continue with what it has achieved despite all the odds, and touch on the historic connection between the speaker’s state (the US, France, Germany) and Israel.
That’s the easy part, the painless stuff.
Then the speaker slides into the current events, dealing with Iran and the Palestinians. On Iran the message is pretty much the same: commitment to keep it from getting nuclear weapons. Regarding the Palestinians, the guests often preface their comments by saying they are coming as friends, and that friends have a responsibility to tell the truth to one another. They then proceed to bash Israel for its settlement policies.
The one glaring exception to this pattern was, of course, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who refused to walk down that well-trodden path, even saying at a press conference that there were enough voices all over the world slamming and singling out Israel, and that he was not going to join the chorus.
But that was Harper, probably Israel’s staunchest advocate on the world stage, and it was expected.
What was less expected was British Prime Minister David Cameron’s warm speech to the Knesset on Wednesday, one that also broke the mold and surprised many, because he is not widely known among the public here for special feelings toward Israel, like, say, a Tony Blair, or a Harper.
Cameron did not follow the well-worn rhetorical pattern in his speech. Yes, there was the homage in it to Jewish values, and history, and there was the appreciation for Jewish contributions to Britain. But when it came to the peace process, Cameron – who many expected would give Israel the “tough love” lecture on the settlements as “a friend” – opted for a different tack.
“Britain fully supports the great work that American Secretary of State John Kerry has been leading.
And we believe that in Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, you have leaders who want peace, too,” he said.
“We back the compromises needed – including the halt to settlement activity and an end to Palestinian incitement, too.”
Then he added words that set this address apart from others given by European, and even American, statesmen.
“But people come to this parliament from all over the world and talk about maps and population numbers and processes and deadlines.
They tell you how to run your peace process. I will not do that. You know I want peace and a two-state solution. You don’t need lectures from me about how to get there.”
And, indeed, he didn’t lecture or hector or berate Jerusalem.
Rather, he laid out an idyllic vision of what peace could look like: no more human rights lectures from Iran and North Korea; no more excuses for 32 UN countries not to recognize Israel; fair treatment by all countries; agreements with every major trading bloc in the world; dignity for the Jewish people and the Palestinians.
Kerry has repeatedly bewailed that everyone is focusing only on the risks of peace, not its dividends.
Cameron came and spoke of the dividends. But he did even more than that, he spoke of the dividends without slamming Israel in the preamble.
Israel knows very well what Britain, and Cameron, think about the settlements and building in Jerusalem over the Green Line. Indeed, Cameron, when asked about it later at a press conference, made Britain’s opposition clear.
Harping on the issue in the Knesset may play well with certain constituencies back home, but it will do little to change anything in Jerusalem or endear him to Israel’s leaders or to the majority of its people. The approach Cameron adopted Wednesday, however, may have drawn the attention of some who otherwise – had he bashed settlements – might have tuned him out, saying “Here we go again.”
By giving the unexpected speech he did, Cameron chose to actually address Israel and Israelis – not The Guardian.
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