One can only speculate what history might have looked like if United States President Barack Obama had made his “Jerusalem Speech” on June 5, 2009, immediately after his “Cairo Speech”, and how the Middle East would have developed if his attempt to turn a page in U.S. relations with the Arab world had been accompanied by the kind of effort to touch the hearts of the Israeli public that Obama made in Jerusalem on Thursday.
Because there’s never been quite such a speech by any U.S. president: “dugri” and direct, admonishing words wrapped in thick layers of support and understanding, sympathy and concern, “tough love” as it was originally intended. The promos from the White House that had built up the speech as the centerpiece of the entire visit, turned out, in retrospect, to be grossly understated.
There wasn’t one Israeli button that Obama didn’t push during the speech and throughout his entire visit: from Holocaust to redemption, anxiety to bravery, victimhood to victory, ancient rights to start-up nation. He embraced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, complimented his wife, adopted his children and commemorated his hero brother, all in an effort to wipe the slate clean and start anew, as far as possible. He threatened Iran, warned Syria, denounced Hezbollah, criticized Hamas and even tried to get Mahmoud Abbas to come down from the tree of a settlement freeze (which Obama had caused him to climb in the first place).
And he did all of this only as a prologue, a warm up, a pregame show before the main event, which turned out be just a few paragraphs from a long speech that he made to a few hundred students in Jerusalem’s Binyanei Ha’uma. Iran’s nuclear weapons and Syria’s chemical arsenal may have topped the agenda behind closed doors, but the high point of Obama’s public visit, its rhetorical and emotional crescendo, was reached in his challenging words about occupation, settlements and peace with the Palestinians, without which, he suggested, Israel’s future, security, and wellbeing are at risk.
Obama posed the kinds of questions that are hardly asked aloud anymore in the Israeli mainstream, swamped as it is in a steady stream of jingoistic, right-wing rhetoric, associated as it has become with people who are portrayed as loony liberals and self-hating leftists. He confronted the conventional wisdom that time is on our side and the status quo is working in our favor. He asked, blasphemy indeed, that Israelis try and look at the world through Palestinian eyes. He conducted, how ironic, the kind of values-based peace campaign which so-called center-left parties were so afraid of in the recent election campaign, because they thought it was toxic.
In this regard, Obama pulled a Bibi on Netanyahu on Thursday: he played on his home field, but for the rival team. Just as conservative Republicans in America would anoint Netanyahu as their leader in an instant, so too Obama yesterday became the resolute and persuasive spokesman that the Israeli center-left so desperately needs; one who could convince the public that his – or her – support for a two-state solution “along the known parameters” does not contradict his great love for Israel, but quite the contrary.
This is the real Obama, his acquaintances say, no masks and no makeup. Obama, “the Jewish President” as Peter Beinart described him in The Crisis of Zionism, whose formative years in public life were spent alongside liberal Zionist Jews who taught him of the Jewish battle for civil rights and of the Jewish belief in a just and enlightened Israel, before the occupation started taking its toll.
This is the same Obama whose naïve assumptions and mistakes borne of inexperience served as fodder for the nefarious jihad of hate and venom and plain old bigotry that his rivals and enemies have waged against him since his first election campaign, a foul and sometimes deranged campaign that is without precedent in the annals of relations between Jews, both American and Israelis, and American Presidents. This is the man who is routinely compared to the worst Jew-haters and baiters in history, from Pharaoh to Haman to Ahmadinejad, who is hell bent on “throwing Israel under the bus” as Mitt Romney repeatedly and recklessly asserted during the recent election campaign.
In this regard, Obama will henceforth be a much tougher rival for his right-wing conservative critics. After this visit, they will be hard pressed to convince many Israelis – and many American Jews, for that matter – that Obama is a rabid Israel-hater and Muslim sympathizer who has the country’s worst interests at heart. His admonitions, even if rejected, will be categorized under the Proverbs saying of “faithful are the wounds of a friend”.
And contrary to all the learned projections and analyses, it turns out that the U.S. fully intends to try and reignite the peace process, as Obama made clear in his Ramallah press conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, he said, “intends to spend significant time, effort, and energy in trying to bring about a closing of the gap between the parties”. This may not make much of an impression on cynical Israelis and Palestinians who expect nothing less than a full-court presidential press in a Camp David style summit, but in the real world, the announcement that America’s most senior cabinet secretary will personally engage in Middle East peace efforts amounts to a dramatic declaration of intent.
“I recognize that there are those who are not simply skeptical about peace, but question its underlying premise”, said Obama, in words that also apply to a large number of the ministers who have just taken up their seats around Israel’s cabinet table. Obama responded to the cynicism, frustration and resignation to eternal strife that have become the hallmark of modern Israelis with the American language of hope, optimism and belief in change with which he has won two elections.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether anything will be left of Obama’s brave efforts to confront Israelis with themselves after Air Force One takes off today, or whether he has indeed planted a seed of hope – or an illusion – that yes, we also can. Even if it’s 4 years too late.
Written by Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev is an Israeli journalist and political analyst. He is a US foreign correspondent for “Haaretz” newspaper. In 2007-2011, Shalev was deputy editor and diplomatic commentator for the Israel Hayom newspaper.
He has covered Israeli politics and the Middle East peace process as a diplomatic correspondent and political analyst for the Jerusalem Post, “Davar” and “Ma’ariv”. You can follow him on twitter @ChemiShalev
Categories: Reality check