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The Obama of this speech is the figure for whom it seems that Peres, soon to celebrate his 90th birthday, has been waiting for in Israel forever. With returned admiration, Obama toasted his presidential counterpart jovially. Though he spent the day talking to the youth of Israel, touting Israel’s hopeful future, he also looked back at Peres, Ben Gurion, Meir, Begin and Rabin.
“The giants have left us,” Obama said. “Only you are with us still — a founding father in our midst.”
But is there anyone between the now venerable Israeli founding father and the Joshua Generation to take up, practically and politically, Obama’s agenda? Is there hope for Israel’s Blue State Generation?
Yair Lapid, the flamboyant leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, the current Finance Minister, with whom Obama chatted at length on the red carpet upon his arrival, might seem the obvious candidate. But Lapid’s agenda, though Blue State, has always been domestically focused, on education, religion-state issues and the “sharing of the burden” that would, among other things, subject the ultra-Orthodox to the draft.
So this may leave, as unlikely as it may seem, Netanyahu. For Obama’s speech surely will change the political landscape in Israel for the foreseeable future, moving the conversation away from social issues to Netanyahu’s comfort zone, security and foreign policy.
The prime minister must have felt miffed by the cordiality between presidents, and cynical, not without justification, at what he undoubtedly sees as Obama’s naïve belief that “hope” can be transferred from Concord to Hadera, from middle America to middle Israel.
But when the prime minister gets over being slighted, perhaps his political instincts, his sense of the opportunity to once again take command of the national conversation, will move him to draw from the momentum of Obama’s speech. Peace, as the president of the United States said, “is a possibility.” Maybe Netanyahu, with the American president’s political clout behind him, will take the chance — and center stage — to convince Red State Israel that Obama’s Blue State vision is finally worth a try.
William Kolbrener, chair of the English department at Bar Ilan University in Israel, is author most recently of “Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love” (Continuum, 2011).