Obama’s speech to a hand-picked Israeli audience in Jerusalem had much good in it, and there are some who devote their professional lives to bringing about a reasonable two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians who consider it the best speech ever made to Israelis by an American President. It was significant that Obama told an Israeli audience in forthright terms that in Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority, they absolutely do have a partner for peace. It was significant that he made a connection between his own children and Palestinian girls he had met in Ramallah earlier–a sort of “de-otherizing” of the Palestinians, who have their own powerful and quite contemporary connection to the land of the Palestine Mandate, which Israelis certainly don’t hear from their own leaders.
It was expedient–cowardly is too strong a word–to tell an Israeli audience that Arab countries have regularly refused to recognize and make peace with Israel while failing to mention that there is an offer, from the Arab League, made in 2002 and reaffirmed five years later, to recognize Israel and establish full trade and commercial and every other sort of normal relations in return for a sovereign Palestinian state within the 1967 borders—and offer which Israel has refused thus far failed respond to or even acknowledge. And Obama’s assertion that Jews, who have succeeded and excelled in countless circumstances and environs, can only find “true freedom” within the bounds of the Zionist state could actually even sound anti-Semitic if said with the wrong accent. But overall, Obama did what he reasonably could to make Israelis feel he respects and understands them. Whether or not his innermost sentiments are as saccharine as those he expressed, such expressions are a requirement of American politics, and Obama showed, once again, that he is very good politician.
Were there more subtle messages in the structure of the speech? Obama stressed America’s unconditional, eternal support for the Jewish state, but with a twist: that this would be not enough to save Israel from diplomatic isolation, nor to ensure its security. After touching on the fact of Israel’s military and technological strength, and the extent of American military cooperation, the Iron Dome, and everything else, Obama stated bluntly that Israel will not be secure unless it makes peace. Many in the Arab world despise Israel, and the way to begin to reverse this is straightforward: “Progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin.” In other words, though America “has Israel’s back” as he has said a million times in the campaign, if Israel wants to reverse the undertow of isolation it faces and find a secure place for itself in the region, it will have to make peace. There is no other way. He made the point more gently, couching it in so many “I love everything about Israel” flourishes that it might have been missed, but it was there.
But will the speech–good in many ways–make any difference? I doubt it. There may well be a critical mass, possibly even a majority, of Israeli university students who could find Obama’s argument persuasive. But Israel has just chosen, by relatively democratic means, a government committed to expanding settlements on the West Bank. Some new cabinet ministers are committed to annexing the West Bank, thus formalizing Israel’s status as an apartheid state. Netanyahu himself has voiced his nominal interest in “two states” but virtually no one familiar with his history and beliefs believes him at all interested in proposing anything more than bantustans for the Palestinians. By committing America to love Israel forever and unconditionally Obama may have blunted the barbs hurled his way by the Israel lobby. By making a powerful stategic and moral argument about peace to the Israeli people, he may be able to say to himself that he has done at least something to merit his Nobel Peace Prize.
But asking the Israeli people to push their government to make peace is really little more than a way of making a nice populist sounding noise while doing nothing. Without American diplomatic pressure, without Israel being forced to recognize there will be serious negative consequences for its West Bank seizure—and Obama has more or less promised none would be ever forthcoming, ever—he is asking an Israeli peace camp to do the impossible. Peace is unlikely to come of it. But if things turn out poorly for Israel in the next generation, Obama will be able to say “I told you so.”