US President Barack Obama gave a great speech in Jerusalem last week.
promised again to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, and pledged undying moral and
military support for the Jewish state. Only then did he urge Israelis not to
forsake efforts to negotiate peace with the Palestinians. His rhetoric was so
powerful that it elicited repeated cheers from about 1,000 Israeli students in
So, now what? One can’t help but recall that Obama also
gave a great speech to students in Cairo in 2009, aimed at winning Muslim hearts
and minds. That speech is best remembered for failing to produce anything
concrete. Can we hope for something more substantial to result from the
president’s wooing of Israeli Jews? The answer depends on how one reads Obama’s
visit. If you expect concrete results from his impassioned call for peace with
the Palestinians, the speech is likely to be a letdown. But if you look
elsewhere for results, you could call it a success.
No question, Obama’s
primary goal was to reverse the mistaken belief among Israelis that he is
hostile to their country. Given his powerful endorsement of Zionism and American
ties with Israel, he probably succeeded, even with the Israeli right
Winning rave public notices helped advance Obama’s second goal:
improving relations with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. A higher level of
trust between the men is crucial to persuading Netanyahu to allow more time for
“tough” US diplomacy with Iran rather than launching a premature Israeli attack
on Tehran’s nuclear program. Here, too, there were clear signs of
Ditto for Obama’s efforts to get both sides on the same page in
dealing with the violence in Syria.
Toward that end, Obama scored a
diplomatic triumph by brokering an apology from Netanyahu for Israeli forces’
2010 killing of nine Turks on the Gaza-bound ship Mavi Marmara. The killings
froze relations between Israel and Turkey, and a thaw is crucial to devising a
regional strategy for dealing with the Syrian regime.
But when it comes
to reviving peace talks, Obama’s fine words are likely to produce minimal
There are clear signs that he recognizes this.
is that he chose to give the speech to Israeli students rather than in the
Knesset. No doubt Obama recognized that his appeal for progress on negotiations
with the Palestinians would be met with hostility, if not boos, from many
right-wing members of the Knesset.
The president admitted that the
chaotic situation in the Arab world provides a dicey backdrop for peace talks.
He also knows that the Palestinian leadership is weak and divided, and that
Netanyahu’s new coalition government is largely hostile to the idea of two
Some key Israeli ministers are strong advocates of increased
Jewish settlement on the West Bank – or even its annexation – and have said they
will pursue even more construction than in the past. Recognizing this reality,
Obama dropped his insistence on a settlement freeze as a precondition for talks,
which makes it hard for the Palestinians to sign on.
realities, the president’s plea for renewed talks, while moving and trenchant,
was almost wistful. In appealing to the next generation – the students – he
quoted the hawkish former prime minister Ariel Sharon: “It is impossible to have
a Jewish, democratic state [and] at the same time to control all of Eretz
Israel” – that is, historic Israel, which includes the Palestinian West
He urged these young people – and through them the wider public –
to consider the world through the eyes of ordinary Palestinians.
insisting that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, he stressed that
continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank makes it impossible to have a
viable, contiguous Palestinian state.
But his effort to generate public
pressure on Israeli leaders to engage in talks is likely to go nowhere. When it
comes to Mideast peace, it has been leaders – Israeli and Palestinian, in the
case of the Oslo talks; Israeli, Egyptian, and American in the Egypt peace talks
– who led the way, encouraging their publics to follow. And the people-to-people
contacts between Palestinians and Israelis that once assisted the process have
True, Obama has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to
try to renew the peace process. He also suggested that his own 2011 proposal to
focus first on borders and security be the basis for talks. But negotiating
borders implies the need to remove Jewish settlements scattered beyond those
borders – a concept that’s anathema to key members of Netanyahu’s governing
So consider Obama’s speech moving, inspiring, and correct in
its arguments that an end to serious peace negotiations is dangerous to Israel.
And consider him correct in arguing that continued Jewish settlement will
eventually rule out even the possibility of a viable Palestinian
Yet by appealing to public opinion rather than to Israeli
politicians, Obama indicated that he knows there is scant chance for serious
negotiations – and is unlikely to pressure the two parties.
his eloquent rhetoric a pro forma quality, as if it is merely a cover for the
real focus of his trip: Syria, Iran, and a reset of relations with Israelis.
Most likely, this speech will be recalled, like the one in Cairo, as another
missed chance for positive change.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and
editorial- board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. (The Philadelphia