Obama urges Israelis to push leaders for peace

In showpiece address, US president mixes pledge of allegiance to Israel’s security with warning that neither ‘occupation nor expulsion’ is answer to Palestinian issue.

US President Barack Obama (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed)
US President Barack Obama
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed)
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 harm.
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.
Obama argued 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 division.”
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 unpunished.”
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 agreement.
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 existential threat.”
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 homeland.”
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.
One 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 said.
“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 “naïve.”
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.”