WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday called for the establishment of a free Palestinian state alongside Israel, saying it was necessary for the preservation of Israeli democracy and security, and integral to Jewish values.
Wearing a white kippah, Obama spoke to a crowd of about 1,000 at Washington DC’s Adas Israel Congregation, one of the largest in the capital, marking Jewish American Heritage Month.
He touted his pro-Israel policies and close ties with Jewish advisors, wishing the audience a “slightly early Shabbat Shalom” and peppering his speech with Hebrew terms such as “tikkun olam” — repairing the world. He said his personal philosophy was inspired by Jewish values and the Israeli pioneer spirit, and “forcefully” objected to claims that his disagreements with the Israeli government over some policies belied a lack of support for the Jewish state.
‘Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their land as well’
Obama was greeted by ringing applause when he affirmed a vision of “Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security.”
“Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their land as well,” he said.
“That’s not easy,” he went on. “The Palestinians are not the easiest of partners. The neighborhood is dangerous and we cannot expect Israel to take existential risks with their security, and so any deal that takes place has to take into account the genuine dangers of terrorism and hostility.”
The president acknowledged what some of his opponents have also claimed – that his standards for Israel are high. “Yes, I have high expectations for Israel, the same way I have high expectations for the United States of America.”
Obama drew lines between his pursuit of equality of opportunity in America and his support for Israel and for combatting anti-Semitism, adding that “the rights of the Jewish people compel me to think about the rights of a Palestinian child in Ramallah who feels trapped without opportunity.”
“That’s what Jewish values teach me,” he said.
Obama’s speech marked both Jewish American Heritage Month and the Lantos Foundation’s annual Solidarity Sabbath, commemorating former senator and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos’s commitment to combatting anti-Semitism and intolerance worldwide. The speech also came, however, at a crucial moment for US-Israel relations and for outreach to the American Jewish community, which has been carefully watching the run-up to a June 30 deadline for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.
In his speech, the president reinforced his strong links – both personal and ideological – with the American Jewish community, as well as to Jewish values. He repeatedly stressed the close ties between African-Americans and Jewish-Americans, and the struggles of both for civil rights and equality.
“American Jews have made contributions to this country that have shaped it in every aspect, and as a community American Jews have helped to make our union more perfect,” Obama told the audience. “Me standing here before you in this congregation is a testament to the power of hope. It is a rebuke to cynicism and to nihilism.”
Obama quickly pivoted the conversation toward Israel, adding that “in one of the most dangerous neighborhood, those values cause us to reaffirm our enduring bonds with the state of Israel…. Those enduring bonds, that friendship, cannot be broken. Those values compel us to say that our commitment to Israel’s security and my commitment to its security is and always will be unshakable.”
Obama received a very warm welcome from the audience, who remained standing and applauding as he began his speech, which was punctuated by applause when he reaffirmed his support for Israel and for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Obama said no other US administration has done as much as his own “to ensure that Israel can protect itself,” and said any deal with the Palestinians must take into account Israel’s security concerns.
Turning to the nuclear deal with Iran, the president said the interim agreement reached between world powers and Tehran “has already halted or rolled back parts of Iran’s nuclear program.”
“Now we’re seeking a comprehensive solution,” he said. “I will not accept a bad deal.”
“I’m interested in a deal which blocks every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon. Every single path. A deal that imposes unprecedented inspections on all elements of Iran’s nuclear program so they can’t cheat,” he said. “If they try to cheat we will immediately know about it and sanctions snap back on. A deal that endures beyond a decade, that addresses this challenge for the long term.”
The president also denounced the “deeply disturbing rise in anti-Semitism” in places such as Europe. He said it was imperative to speak out against “the scourge of anti-Semitism wherever it exists,” saying anti-Semitic incidents were not just isolated phenomena, but a “threat to broader human values” which cannot be ignored.