It took some 34 months, but on Wednesday at the UN Israel finally heard the speech it wanted to hear from US President Barack Obama.
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were so many elements of previous Obama speeches on the Middle East
that rankled so many Israelis, and left a taste in many people's mouths
that here was a president who simply did not get us; who did not
understand our history, our daily reality, or our fears.
Gone was any reference to the settlements. Not in this speech were his words from Cairo in June 2009 that did so much to knock the diplomatic process off kilter: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.
This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”
Gone were veiled comparisons between the Palestinian struggle and the US civil rights movement, as was done in his Cairo speech when, during his discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama said, “For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding.”
Gone too were infuriating hints that the Jewish people’s link to Israel was the result of its tragic history, not because Israel is the cradle of the Jewish people.
Gone too was the striving after perfect balance, talking about the Holocaust in one breath, and then saying in the very next, “On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” No, this was a speech of an entirely different tone and tenor.
This was a speech in which the US president, speaking to the world, gave context to words that other world leaders will undoubtedly spew out over the next two days from the UN podium about Palestinian degradations and humiliations, about the evils of Israeli checkpoints and security barriers and defensive actions.
“Let us be honest with ourselves: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it,” Obama said. “Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and fresh memories of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they are. Those are facts. They cannot be denied.”
That was a dose of empathy and understanding that goes a long way toward explaining much of Israeli policy, past and present. Looked through this prism, the security barrier isn’t a land grab, and Operation Cast Lead was not just another opportunity by a blood-thirsty people to persecute the Palestinians.
This was a dose of empathy and understanding Obama had not articulated strongly in the past. Had he mouthed these words during the first few months of his presidency, much of the tension in the US-Israeli relationship over the past twoand- a-half years could have been avoided.
Speaking to a body often obsessed with the difficult reality under which the Palestinians live, Obama urged the UN to consider the Israeli reality as well.
“This body – founded, as it was, out of the ashes of war and genocide, dedicated, as it is, to the dignity of every single person – must recognize the reality that is lived by both the Palestinians and the Israelis,” he said.
“The measure of our actions must always be whether they advance the right of Israeli and Palestinian children to live in peace and security, with dignity and opportunity.”
Obama did not jettison his desire to see a Palestinian state, he just gave articulate expression to the truth that it will only come about through talks. In the early days of the Obama tenure, when the president harped on the settlement issue, he created the impression that the US believed that if the settlements were just halted, then the Arab world would pitch in and take steps toward Israel, and everything else would fall into place.
On Wednesday, he acknowledged that there were no shortcuts, period. No magic formulas, no silver bullets. As he said, “I know that many are frustrated by a lack of progress. I assure you, so am I.” But this frustration seems to have begot a more realistic appreciation of what is, and what is not, possible.
He even spoke – although not directly – of something not often mentioned publicly by world leaders: of the need for the Palestinians to compromise as well.
“Ultimately, peace depends upon compromise among people who must live together long after our speeches are over, long after our votes have been tallied,” he said.
Cynics will argue that Obama doesn’t mean it, that he is just mouthing the words – pandering to the Jews, worried about reelection, recalibrating his message after a Democrat was roundly defeated by a Republican in a heavily Jewish congressional district that the Republicans have not represented in nearly 90 years.
No one can read into his heart, but the words – at this time, at that forum, in the matter in which they were expressed – do matter.
Obama’s top Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, in his 2004 book The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace
, wrote that “Israel, given its small size and vulnerability, must feel secure if it was to make concessions for peace.
Could or would Israel feel safe enough to contemplate giving up territory – and inherently more defensible borders – if it questioned the US commitment to its security? “Similarly,” Ross wrote, “would the Arab world even believe it had to accommodate itself to Israel’s existence if it had reason to question the staying power of the US commitment to Israel?... Peacemaking required that the Arabs understand that no wedge would be driven between the United States and Israel, and that Israel was not going to disappear.”
At the UN podium on Wednesday, Obama sent a message – whatever the reasons for that message may have been – that between Israel and the US there will be no wedge. And that is not an insignificant message.