US President Barack Obama bypassed Israel’s politicians Thursday and in the
centerpiece speech of his two-day trip called on the Israeli public to press its
leaders 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,”
he said to a crowd that included some 1,000 students from all the country’s
universities – except Ariel University in the West Bank. “You must create the
change that you want to see.”
Click here for full JPost coverage of Obama's visit to Israel
In an hour-long speech at the Jerusalem
International Convention Center that included a heaping dose of understanding
along with a spoonful of rebuke, Obama said that while he realized peace was
difficult to achieve Israel must keep trying.
Peace is necessary because
it is “the only path to true security,” he said, adding that no wall is high
enough, no Iron Dome strong enough to stop every enemy from inflicting
He urged the crowd not to give in to the temptation to stop pursing
peace since the country’s anti-missile systems and security barriers were
providing only temporary security.
The American president referenced the
demographic argument that Jews will be soon outnumbered west of the Jordan
River. He cited former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s use of this argument by
saying that the only way Israel can remain Jewish and democratic is through “the
realization of an independent and viable Palestine.” This would also be a way,
he said, to “reverse an undertow” of isolation in the world.
that the changes taking place in the Arab world make the pursuit of peace with
the Palestinians more essential since “the days when Israel could seek peace
with a handful of autocratic leaders are over.”
Peace must be made among
peoples, he said, acknowledging that no one step can change overnight what lies
in the hearts of millions of people, but that “progress with the Palestinians is
a powerful way to begin, while sidelining extremists who thrive on conflict and
To the young crowd, which punctuated his remarks dozens of
times with applause, he said simply that peace also needed to be pursued because
it was just.
“Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through
their eyes,” he urged, speaking of the Palestinians. “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
To loud applause he said: “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.”
Punctuated by a
reference to the popular Israeli television show Eretz Nehederet and several
Hebrew phrases such as atem lo levad (“you are not alone”), the carefully
crafted speech mentioned an accord with the Palestinians only in the broadest of
terms. Obama did not use this speech to detail how he envisioned that
While saying that “settlement activity is counterproductive to
the cause of peace” and that an independent Palestine “must be viable,” Obama
made no reference to a settlement freeze, a return to the pre- 1967 lines,
Jerusalem or refugees. He did, however, spend a good part of the speech
articulating an empathy with Israel’s security concerns.
“When I consider
Israel’s security,” he said, “I think about children like Osher Twito, whom I
met in Sderot – children, the same age as my own daughters, who went to bed at
night fearful that a rocket would land in their bedroom simply because of who
they are and where they live.”
He also said that thoughts about Israeli
security brought to mind “five Israelis who boarded a bus in Bulgaria [last
July], who were blown up because of where they came from.”
In a clear
reference to the European Union, Obama said that “every country that values
justice should call Hezbollah what it truly is – a terrorist organization –
because the world cannot tolerate an organization that murders innocent
civilians, stockpiles rockets to shoot at cities, and supports the massacre of
men, women and children in Syria.”
While the US has placed Hezbollah on
its terrorist blacklist, the EU has yet to do so.
Obama also mentioned
the Holocaust, as he did during his speech in Cairo four years ago. But unlike
in Cairo, where he framed the Jews’ return to Israel solely within the context
of the Holocaust and a tragic Jewish history, he recalled World War II to
understand Israel’s security concerns.
“When I consider Israel’s security
I also think about a people who have a living memory of the Holocaust, faced
with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iranian government that has called for
Israel’s destruction,” he said.
“It’s no wonder Israelis view this as an
The president used some of his toughest rhetoric to
date regarding the Iranian nuclear drive, saying “America will do what we must
to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.”
Obama went to the convention center
after returning from meetings in Ramallah.
He came out on a stage
bedecked with four large Israeli and American flags, unannounced and nearly 30
minutes early, after the singing of both countries’ national anthems. He waved
and received an energetic ovation.
He began his speech by referencing a
theme that has marked his entire visit: paying homage to the Jewish people’s
deep ties to the land.
“For the Jewish people, the journey to the promise
of the State of Israel wound through countless generations. It involved
centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice, pogroms and even genocide. Through
it all, the Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as
well as a longing to return home. And while Jews achieved extraordinary success
in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full
expression in the Zionist idea – to be a free people in your
Obama’s remarks were interrupted by a heckler who shouted a
pro-Palestinian slogan. The crowd immediately began to applaud to drown out the
heckler’s words and then jumped to its feet when the president said this was an
indication of the “lively debate” always evident in Israeli society.
member of the audience, Shmuel Cohen, who is pursuing cultural studies at Sapir
Academic College near Sderot – which was hit by rockets earlier in the day –
said he left the hall feeling “inspired.”
“This gives hope,” he
“It gives me motivation to tell the people around me that ‘leftist’
is not a derogatory word.”
Mahmoud Khalaily, a second- year medical
student from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said he came to the event
without high expectations but thought that overall it had been “positive.” His
one complaint was that the president had not pressured Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu more during the visit.
Another student, Guy Doch from Ramat
Gan, said he had been able to connect to some but not all elements of the
speech. While appreciative of Obama’s words regarding Israel and its security
needs, he found the section of the speech devoted to the Palestinian issue
Netanyahu issued a statement following the address thanking
Obama for “his unreserved support.” He said he shared Obama’s view “regarding
the need to advance a peace that ensures the security of Israel's citizens.”
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