Obama’s Israel visit wins over Jews at home

Obama’s Israel visit wins over Jews at home

Every side of the American Jewish debate over Israeli-Palestinian peace found something to cheer about

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

US President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center, March 21 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
US President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center, March 21 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s much-lauded speech Thursday before a crowd of young Israelis earned widespread praise across the American Jewish ideological spectrum.

The speech dealt with the broad sweep of issues on the US-Israel agenda, giving a wide range of American Jewish groups something to cheer about.

Obama’s criticism of both past Palestinian rejectionism and of their resort to terror earned him high praise from the Anti-Defamation League, among others.

The influential group praised the president for recognizing “the risks Israel has taken for peace, steps often not met with reciprocity from the Palestinians.”

That was the only mention of the Palestinians in the group’s Thursday statement, which went on to thank Obama for emphasizing “the millennia-old connection the Jewish people have to the land of Israel” and “the grave security challenges facing Israel, including terror threats from Hamas, and the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.”

In a statement Friday, AIPAC “saluted” Obama for the security agreements announced on the trip and his call on the Palestinians to drop preconditions to peace talks.

That tone was echoed in a statement by Jewish Federations of North America board chair Michael Siegal, who praised Obama Friday for having “underscored America’s unshakable bond with the Jewish State at a critical time and expressed a profound understanding of the challenges Israel faces.”

More conservative groups were also broadly supportive of the speech.

The Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament, head of the organization’s public advocacy arm, told the Times of Israel Friday that the group was “very pleased with [Obama’s] explicit embrace and acknowledgement of thousands of years of history of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. We’re very appreciative of the support, the clear and strong policy, toward Iran obtaining nuclear weapons and the security of Israel.”

When it came to Obama’s call for establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Diament was noncommittal. “The president laid out his view,” he said, but added: “What was important was that [Obama] made it very clear that whatever the details, whatever is going to be decided regarding borders and everything, it’s ultimately going to have to be decided by the parties in negotiations. It can’t be imposed from the outside.”

For their part, left-wing groups seemed thrilled by the speech, which they said forcefully laid out the case for peace.

J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami praised Obama for “making the two-state solution a top priority for his administration.”

In a conversation with the Times of Israel Thursday, he pointed to the moment in the speech when Obama told Israelis, “the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.”

“What I saw as the point of the speech was [Obama’s] laying out clearly and starkly the crossroads Israel is at,” Ben-Ami said. Obama spoke of US-Israeli friendship, of Jewish ties to the land of Israel, and then explained to Israelis “that all of that is at risk, the entirety of Israel is at risk, without peace,” Ben-Ami said.

In an email to J Street supporters, Ben-Ami wrote that the speech represented “our moment — our time to lead! Never has anyone expressed with greater clarity and with greater conviction everything that our movement fights for and holds dear.”

The left-leaning Israel Policy Forum, in an email that quoted the same line from Obama’s speech, said simply, “We could not agree more.”

One US Jewish official who asked not to be named offered a reason for the widespread praise the speech garnered.

While Obama emphatically and passionately called for peace talks, he separated the issue of peace from the issue of security, the official said. “Security is something Israel needs fundamentally, and Obama has secured it for them regardless of peace. All the tangible things that were announced were on Iran and security. He could have announced new talks. He could have announced that [Secretary of State John] Kerry would host a meeting of the sides. There was nothing like that. No deadlines, nothing.”

So while Obama issued perhaps the most impassioned call for peace yet in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “his position is that ultimately the two sides have to figure it out themselves.”

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