Reporter's Notebook

Carrots, and sticks, at Obama’s Jerusalem speech

The biggest ovation: when the president eased past the heckling. The biggest critic: an Israeli Arab who complained he only talked about Jews

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Outside the International Convention Center in Jerusalem (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Outside the International Convention Center in Jerusalem (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Ahead of US President Barack Obama’s visit, much ado was made over the speech he would give in Jerusalem Thursday to the Israeli people. Following Day 1 of the visit, during which the world saw two leaders, known to not really be fond of each other, acting like new best friends, the interest was even greater.

After the carrot — acknowledging the Jews’ history in this land and Israel’s right to defend itself against any threat — would this address bring the stick? Was the chemistry on Wednesday a softener for the acid that would follow at the International Convention Center, in the form of political pressure to restart talks with the Palestinians, perhaps even a call to freeze settlement building.

Before the speech, there was a fuss over the fact that the White House did not invite students from Ariel University, which is located beyond the Green Line. Student groups and several MKs called on the public to boycott the event.

But on Thursday, in the long hours ahead of the speech, the atmosphere outside the ICC seemed surprisingly blasé. No one protested, but there was also little enthusiasm. Hope and change? Yes, he can, perhaps, in the US. But not in the Middle East.

“To be honest, I don’t expect that anything important will be said,” said Bnei Zion resident Dan Offer, 24, who studies neurosciences at The Hebrew University, as he and hundreds of other students from across the country waited to pass through security. “I’m just here to hear him because he’s a great orator. But I have absolutely no expectations that anything will change on the geopolitical level.”

Pninit, 24, who studies at Haifa University, said she was “pretty excited” about the speech, but didn’t know what to answer when asked why. “Maybe he’ll talk about why he came and about what he wants for the future,” she said.

At least Mordechai, a Haredi Jew who studies Torah in a yeshiva in the mornings and psychology and philosophy at the Open University in the afternoons, showed some passion. “It will certainly be a historic speech. He’s a fascinating person and it will be very interesting to hear him speak,” the 22-year-old said. Will Obama try to pressure Israel to make painful concessions to restart the peace process? Mordechai, who lives in Netanya, wasn’t sure. “He will certainly have some kind of message to the Israeli people. He didn’t come here for nothing. But if he wants to put pressure on us because of the Palestinians, he’ll do it elegantly and with lots of grace.”

The convention center was a fortress. Even highly decorated police officers weren’t allowed to enter the building without a blue wristband. Students and television crews were asked to get there by 9:00 a.m., but hundreds of people were still stuck outside four hours later, entirely blocking the sidewalk.

At around 4:35 p.m., after the hall had filled to capacity and the Israeli and the American anthems were sung, Obama entered — a few minutes ahead of schedule. “Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States of America,” a voice announced, drowning out the deafening chatter .

US President Barack Obama delivers his speech at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on March 21, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
US President Barack Obama delivers his speech at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on March 21, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As he did in Wednesday’s speech at the airport reception, Obama started with a few crowd-pleasers, speaking some words in Hebrew and referencing “Eretz Nehederet,” a popular satirical television show. But even when his speech became serious, for example when he criticized “settler violence against Palestinians,” he received polite applause. When he said that “the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized,” he merited an even louder round of applause, leading some reporters in the hall to wonder aloud whether the audience had been vetted.

In the middle of the speech, one person got up to heckle — on behalf of the Palestinians, it turned out. When Obama responded, composed as ever, “That’s the lively debate we were talking about,” the entire hall rose to its feet. Other standing ovations followed — as Obama set out his vision for Israel’s better future, if only young people like those in the audience would push for it — but this was the longest and warmest.

“It was wonderful. There aren’t many politicians in Israel who speak like that,” Shmuel Cohen, a 26-year-old student from Jerusalem who studies at Sapir College, said after Obama concluded his remarks. “He speaks of hope; in Israel most politicians’ speeches are based on trying to instill fear in us.”

Guy in a shirt (photo credit: Times of Israel)

Tel Aviv resident Noa Regev, who studies aerospace engineering at the Technion, said the speech was more controversial than she had expected. “It might have looked to you as if the whole hall was clapping in agreement. But where I sat, I heard enough people moaning, “What’s he talking about?” “Well, tell that to [the Palestinians],” and so on. But I thought it was great. It’s good that he didn’t just come here to kiss ass,” Regev said.

Aaron Frimer, a student at Bar-Ilan University, said that the speech didn’t really break new ground, but stated well-known truths that deserve to be restated. “They’ve been saying the same thing for 20 years. But Obama said it loud and clear — and it needed to be said loud and clear.”

Ariel, from The Hebrew University, concurred. “I thought he spoke eye-to-eye to us, and he really hit the right notes, speaking a few words in Hebrew and relating Jewish history and culture and so on. But I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t offer anything concrete, any kind of peace plan. But I guess he’s right: These things are better discussed in private conversations and not in public speeches.” Which wasn’t what Obama had said at all; in fact, he’d urged the young Israelis to impose their will, their hopes, on the politicians.

Israeli Arabs in the audience had some distinctive responses too. “It was really a horrible speech. He only talked about Jews. He talked about having separate countries for Jews and Arabs, which means that we must leave Israel,” one young Arab woman fumed, refusing to give her name.

Another Arab student, who also declined to be identified, dryly said, “It was interesting. We’ll hope for the best.”

Hope, and act, Obama would doubtless have said. That, after all, had been the thrust of his message.

And there’d been carrots and sticks: Put aside your skepticism, do what you can to start building trust with your neighbors, and you’ll be able to forge a better, more prosperous, more moral, more beloved country. If not, risk losing that precious combination of Jewish and democratic Israel.

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