By the end, the students were applauding almost every sentence. They stood and cheered when it was over, roaring their approval.
Barack Obama, widely perceived by Israelis before this visit as a cold president, a leader dutifully supporting Israel but lacking any real empathy for it, transformed that image in the course of the powerhouse central address of his visit here on Thursday afternoon — for the 1,000 ecstatic young Israelis in Jerusalem’s International Conference Center, and doubtless for many, many Israelis watching on live television nationwide.
He also, deftly and subtly, unveiled a vision for Israel that all Israelis would love to realize — an Israel at peace, in a region at peace, thriving financially, admired morally, no longer at physical risk.
But the route he set out to that glorious future — don’t be daunted by the risks or deterred by the extremists, work assiduously to build trust with the Palestinians and those many in the region who he said seek the very same future as young Israelis do — that’s where his utopian vision became anything but consensual. Indeed it resonated as an unmistakable challenge to the skepticism of the Israeli political leadership under “my friend Bibi.” For this was the address of a passionate, pro-Israel advocate, a true friend, a Zionist. A left-wing Zionist, employing his charisma, his authority and his oratory to try to shift Israelis into his camp.
It was a deft, brilliantly conceived speech. He told Israelis how moral they are, how admirably creative they are, how smart with those 10 Nobel prizes, how democratic, how prosperous, and how mighty — the most powerful country in the region. He told them that the world’s strongest nation stood unshakably with them. “So long as there is a United States of America, Atem Lo Levad” — you are not alone.
And having built them up, convinced them of their near-invincibility, he showed them a theoretical future that he insisted could be realized if they would only trust in their strength sufficiently to take risks for peace. A future in which the security threats will recede. The prosperity will increase. The moral stain of occupation will disappear. All it takes is that determined, constant push for peace. How could they refuse him?
As predicted, this speech was the “reset” of Obama’s personal relationship with Israel. It was the speech in which he showed his knowledge of Israel, quoting its religious texts and its political visionaries, recalling the suffering of exile, the yearning for the homeland. It was the speech in which he acknowledged the extent of the hostility tiny Israel has faced and continues to face in this region, the relentless series of wars it has been forced to fight for its survival.
He knew, he told the listening Israelis, that you live in a region in which many have rejected your very right to exist. He knew, he said, that the security of the Jewish people in Israel cannot be taken for granted. He knew Israel had seized opportunities for peace with Egypt and Jordan under Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, and tried hard to make peace with the Palestinians, including under Ehud Olmert at Annapolis. He knew that the 2000 Lebanon pullout and the 2005 Gaza withdrawal had been met with rocket fire, and that “the hand of friendship” had too often been met with rejectionism and terror.
He knew. He understood. He empathized. And yet, he argued, there was no choice but to keep trying. A democratic, Jewish Israel requires a Palestinian state, he said. He quoted Ariel Sharon — seek to maintain the entire Land of Israel and you risk losing it all. The Palestinians deserve a state, he said. Israelis deserve it. It’s the only path to security, to an end to isolation, to that better future.
Again as predicted, it was also the speech in which the president emphatically, even explicitly, reached out to young Israelis over the heads of their political leaders — because, as he put it, politicians won’t take risks unless the people push them. Ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things.
This address was a sustained appeal to what Israelis would like to think are their best qualities — a presidential plea to young Israelis to put aside their skepticism, their misgivings, even their bitter experience in this unforgiving region, and utilize their optimism, their zest, their brains, their creativity, to work for a miraculous transformation. Wasn’t it David Ben-Gurion, he recalled, who said that in Israel being a realist means believing in miracles.
No overly blatant confrontation with Benjamin Netanyahu, who speaks of Israel facing unprecedented threats and challenges, but a blatantly different vision. This was Shimon Peres’s Israel, not Netanyahu’s, and Shimon Peres’s Middle East — a mindset many Israelis have left behind since the failure of Camp David 2000 and the outbreak of the second intifada.
You, the young people of Israel, “must claim its future,” he said. They listened. They cheered. Many of them may even have believed.
Danny Ayalon, Israel’s former deputy foreign minister, said immediately afterwards that the speech was “no problem” for Netanyahu because Obama hadn’t specified border lines. Which rather missed the point. The speech is no problem for Netanyahu unless Israelis buy into its core premise — that if Israel only pushes harder for reconciliation, regional hostility to Israel will gradually melt. On that, as the elections proved in January, Israelis are thoroughly divided.
Emotionally, Obama’s speech was profoundly affecting, and will likely have moved many Israelis, shifting their opinion of him, winning them over. Shifting them politically? That’s something quite different.