Today Israelis feel proud. Four American presidents have already visited our country, and it is always a historic occasion. But this visit is special.
President Barack Obama is a representative of a new America, a more multicultural one, a new coalition of minorities. A president whose mere election and reelection is a historic landmark; the leader of the free world, but leading through coalition building, not by dictating, respecting also the weaker links of the international chain, not compromising on democracy and respect for human rights.
He has rescued the American economy in times of crisis, brought health care to all Americans and is cooperating with the champions of the private sector, while caring for the most needy; a liberal leader never afraid to voice his opinion and act for what’s right, like gun control and education reform; a man of peace who put an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to Osama bin Laden; a man who reflects the ray of hope for peace in the world.
Israelis salute the distinguished guest and will listen to every word he utters and to his speech to the young generation. And so will the Arabs, especially the Palestinians; not only to his brilliant rhetoric, but also to indepth messages related to what in his mind is good for the security and well-being of the region.
Journalists and analysts will keep a scorecard on how pro-Israel and how pro-Arab he is. But this is not a sports competition, nor is it a zero-sum game. A pro-Israel president is above all a pro-peace president. A pro-Palestine president is above all a pro-peace president because the interests of both sides – security, stability, independence and economic growth – are all dependent on peace in the region. Therefore his mission to the region is both a mission of friendship and a mission of peace. Likewise our welcome should be one of both gratitude and of peace.
Indeed, as Obama comes to talk to us, we must ask him also to listen to us. As he speaks not only to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Abu Mazen, (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) but also to the people, especially the young, it is their message and well-being that he should have his heart and mind set on.
The young of this region are not only its future, but also its present – 60 percent are under 30. They are the agents of change in the Middle East – from the Tahrir and Jasmine revolutions through the Rothschild Boulevard protest movement, to the dissatisfaction in the squares of Ramallah.
I have the privilege of listening to these voices as I established the biggest Internetbased peace movement, with over 350,000 young members, YaLa-Young Leaders, from Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Lebanon and beyond. As expressed by them on almost a daily basis, they would, I believe, make the following points to the American president: • Expressing a warm welcome to the important guest, though they have become skeptical that even the United States can guide the region in desired directions. The young would like to see the United States involved and helpful, although for them democracy in the region should be homemade and not necessarily Jeffersonian. Peace should be made with American help, but should not be a pax Americana.
• They want to be connected to the world and to America as equals.
They realize it on social networks, in their studies and in their work. The young comprehend that peace is a condition for belonging to a dramatically transformed world. It is not anymore a glorious, romantic aim, but rather a means to achieve all other goals – democracy, respect for human rights, good education and adequate work. They indeed believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
• Like all peace-seeking people, most of the young here understand that peace is not possible without a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The minds and hearts of the Arab young are focused on their Palestinian brethren living under the Israeli occupation, which must come to an end. The Israeli young do not seek this occupation, but yearn for security and an end to terror. Both know that there is no military solution to these predicaments, only a political settlement.
They would like the United States to play a leading role as an honest and fair broker.
• Their vision is close to the one President Obama expressed in his policy statements of 2011. A two-state solution is the only solution.
The alternative would sacrifice the very identity of Israel and the future of Palestine.
Therefore they would like President Obama to help rescue two states – the Jewish democratic state of Israel and the Arab and democratic future state of Palestine. The identities of the two states are dependent on a separation between the two peoples, into two independent states. The outcome of such a settlement is more or less clear for all. Yet many have given up hope. Despair and frustration can lead to a dangerous cycle of violence throughout the region. Therefore the visit of the American president must be a mission of concrete and tangible hope and time is of the essence.
• The young on both sides of the divide are fairly skeptical of their political leaders’ ability to take the necessary courageous decisions.
They prefer a settlement to settlements and coexistence to terror. But they yearn for deeds, are tired of empty words and promises.
The young would welcome a new partnership with the United States under President Obama. It is such a partnership that the president can propose: a bridge between America and the young generation of Israel, Palestine and the region. A new partnership based on common values, aims and equality, which could include: • An ongoing dialogue between the leaders of America and the young of the region, mostly the students of the many universities.
They are ready to listen, as they did to the important speech in Cairo in 2009 and now in Jerusalem. They must and do comprehend that the United States has its own strategic interests in the region, which guide its policies, and that peace and security are their cornerstone. Most of them are especially attentive to President Obama, a fellow Facebooker, a man who represents and understands the values of the young.
Such a dialogue must take into account the cultural sensitivities of young Arabs and Israelis, wanting to be part of globalization, yet proud of their tradition and culture.
Such a dialogue should also include the young generation of America and its civil society.
• Most of all, the young in the Middle East, especially at the core of the region, want to break out of the walls that surround and isolate them because of the conflict. They want to communicate with the American dream – Massachusetts universities, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, etc.
President Obama can, in an innovative approach to public diplomacy, create new bridges as America is open to modern communication with the world. He can help the young break the walls of the conflict ghetto, internally and externally. He will find the young of the region willing, not least the young women who courageously seek freedom and equality.
• This new partnership should not be only about dialogue, but should lead to real cooperation on the best America has to offer, starting with online higher education, which today is available from all leading American universities (the YaLa Online Academy is already, with the help of the US State Department, bringing such courses to hundreds of youth in the region).
Obama’s alma mater, for instance, is at the forefront of courses on negotiation and conflict resolution; skills that are more than necessary in our region.
Simultaneously the young generation here wishes to acquire professionalism that can make them part, also in their countries, of the leading multinationals, mainly in the field of high technology.
• If in America it’s about the economy, here it is about peace. The young want a fair and just peace process, mainly on the Palestinian issue, with a two-state solution based on the Obama vision. One that is inclusive of them, that above all, brings their interest into consideration with full freedoms for all; peace without legitimacy of the young in the squares of the region’s cities will not hold.
Peace must be inclusive, also by the young, for the young.
This visit is about partnership, democracy and peace – a partnership with Israel, the number one ally for its security, a partnership with the Palestinians, for the establishment of a democratic state, a partnership with both sides for peace, security, mutual respect and economic development; a partnership with the young generation, the hope for change in the region. The generation of democratic reform, which can and should – in dialogue with the leader of the free world – become the generation of peace.
Welcome, Mr. President.Edited by Barbara Hurwitz. The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.