The pessimistic forecasts of President Barack Obama’s visit last week were
wrong. He did not come, as predicted, with a grand new peace plan, and he did
come with a major charm offensive.
But the prevailing view, that Obama’s
visit was aimed just at reaffirming his friendship with Israel and listening to
Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, was wrong.
Obama came for a game
changer, a surprising and correct one – to introduce innovation in peacemaking –
a peace process driven by the people, mainly the young generation of Israel and
He came, he saw, he conquered.
He spoke to the young,
in and from Jerusalem, above the heads of their political leaders, and
galvanized them to lead on the road to peace and to pressure their leaders to
make decisions for peace.
Obama understands the new rules of the game in
the Middle East – that much will depend on the young, the generation of the
Tahrir revolutions and the Rothschild movement protests, who will no longer
tolerate the procrastinations and excuses of their archaic leaders.
reception to his speech, by the young, not only in the hall at the Jerusalem
International Convention Center, but in the country, as well as by many of the
young in the Palestinian territories, was positive and often enthusiastic. He
spoke their language.
His life story captivates their imagination and
sets a formidable example; they felt empowered and showed respect and admiration
for a truly great democratic leader. The politicians on both sides must have
watched the speech with mixed feelings.
None of them likes to be
sidelined, even by their constituency, and none of them could endorse everything
in the speech.
Yet after the reaction of the young, they had to refrain
from their usual cynical criticism. Obama taught them a lesson in leadership,
civil courage and in telling the truth. Only his host and friend, President
Shimon Peres, fully identifies with the Obama message, which is also his
Obama’s visit, with the Jerusalem speech at its centerpiece, created
a new paradigm of inclusive peacemaking and a balanced future approach to a
region at a crossroads, with several important components: No one, even
right-wing Republicans and Israelis, will be able to say that Obama is not a
staunch friend of Israel.
His expressions of friendship with Israel and
Israelis came from his most fundamental beliefs regarding Jewish history and
from his view of the dramatic modern Israeli success story. No one can teach him
when it comes to friendship with Israel.
This friendship is also
translated into policy. The survival, security and well-being of our country are
basic American interests in the view of this American president. Our security
has been, and will be, bolstered by the relationship with Obama and his
administration; his words and deeds will serve as a deterrent to Israel’s
enemies, starting with Iran.
• Being a friend of Israel does not have to
mean being anti-Arab, or anti-Palestinian.
Obama struck a new balance – a
passionate friend and supporter of Israel and its security on one side, and a
strong supporter of Palestinian rights for self-determination and an independent
state on the other. He crushed the myth that being pro-Israel means being
opposed to the Arabs. On the contrary, he created a bridge between legitimate
Israeli aspirations for security and legitimate Palestinian aspirations for an
He put himself in the shoes of both.
• Peace in
the new Obama doctrine is both necessary and just. Necessary in order to prevent
war and terror and to weaken the radicals and fundamentalists.
in order for Israelis to preserve the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel and
for the Palestinians to enhance the Arab and democratic nature of
Both sides, while having different historical narratives, need
to recognize the other side and its right to live in full freedom.
Another paradigm that Obama stated was to link Israeli-Palestinian peace and
regional stability. He called on the countries in the region to gradually
normalize their relations with Israel, parallel to a viable Israeli-Palestinian
peace process, which is in conformity with the Saudi peace plan. A first step in
that direction was the successful efforts to re-normalize Turkish-Israeli
• Obama also made it blatantly clear to his Israeli and Arab
interlocutors and listeners that if they want to belong to the globalized world,
the entry ticket is a peace process. The alternative is dangerous international
relations and being left behind by global change and opportunity.
all, Obama introduced a different peace dynamic – by the young and for the young
– adapting to the profound regional transitions; the young in the region are the
democratic majority, with 60 percent under the age of 30 and young demonstrators
toppling dictators and expressing dissatisfaction with politics and politicians.
They, in Obama’s view, have not only become the barometer of the social
tendencies, but also the engine of change.
The new coalition between the
young American President and the young of Israel and Palestine can and should
become a powerful vehicle for positive transformation in the region. The young
understand that their very well-being and basic freedoms, their higher
education, their opportunity to enter the more modern workplace of technology
and their connection to a transforming world are dependent on living in peace.
Political compromise for peace means getting more out of life. They can serve as
a democratic pressure group on politicians whose main aim is to cling to
Obama wants security for Israel, self-determination for the
Palestinians and power for the young.
These interconnected approaches
must have a powerful impact, not only because they came from the charismatic
leader of the free world, but because they have great validity in the reality of
the Middle East. As Obama said, we are at a crossroads, between war and peace,
between living up to our identity and sacrificing it.
It is now up to us
in the region, with the help of our American friends, to act upon these
fundamental truths: • Netanyahu, as a third-term prime minister, can either opt
for “more of the same” policies or make a courageous historical turn toward
It is a choice between being a politician and being a statesman.
If he continues to lead Israel in opposition to the rest of the world and the
region, in opposition to our very identity as a Jewish democracy, in coalition
with Moshe Feiglin and Naftali Bennett, continuing on the road of settlements,
instead of a historic settlement, it will become a slippery slope, endangering
our security, democracy, economic development, our place among nations, and
ultimately our friendship with the United States. The alternative is change – to
launch an Israeli peace initiative with realistic positions, mainly concerning
the border with a demilitarized Palestinian state, based on the 1967 lines, with
agreed land swaps and stringent security measures.
• Abu Mazen (Abbas)
too must decide, following the visit, on which side of history he wants to
belong – the unilateral, futile international bid for statehood, leading
nowhere, or the engagement in a historical compromise with his next-door
neighbor, the Jewish State of Israel. He too must be on the proposing side, not
just reacting with constant hesitation, but rather proposing real peace between
Palestine and Israel and an end to the conflict with the understanding that the
right of return will be to the new independent state of Palestine.
United States cannot replace the leaders of the region, but it can, as Obama
did, place international reality and regional alternatives in front of them. It
also can serve as an encouraging and mediating force in the form of Secretary of
State John Kerry. A new basis for negotiations should now be created, bringing
into account the legitimate interests of the two parties – comprised of the
previous agreements between the parties, the vision expressed by Israel’s main
ally, Obama, in 2011 and the Saudi Peace Initiative.
These desired policy
changes can come about with an innovative approach to peacemaking, as proposed
Inclusive peacemaking, not just between political leaders, but
also between the young, Israelis and Palestinians alike and those who heard
Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 and his Jerusalem speech in 2013.
the generation of change, as ultimately peace is about them. At a very young age
we send them to war to risk their lives, so we should also permit them to be the
soldiers of peace in order to rescue their lives, livelihoods and the very
independence and identity of their countries.
For this proposition and
more – thank you, Mr. President! The writer is president of the Peres Center for
Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords. This column
was edited by Barbara Hurwitz.