Barack Obama's Speech Appeals to Israelis' Best Instincts — and Interests

President's Soaring Rhetoric Included Nod to Security Needs

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By Leonard Fein

Published March 30, 2013, issue of April 05, 2013.
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President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem was not merely a home run; it was out of the park. Few people — truth to tell, I can think of none — combine eloquence and substance as well as Obama, and the shame of it is that there was no one on base when he delivered his major address while in Israel.

Forgive me: There’s no way to do the speech justice without quoting extensively from it, and that in itself, which calls for pulling apart a very carefully crafted speech, is an injustice. His bluntness, his friendship and even admiration for Israel, his deep understanding of Israel’s dilemmas and, therefore of the urgency of both peace and security are remarkable and deserve to be studied. (There have been suggestions that the speech become a part of Israel’s high school curriculum.) So I urge you, if you’ve neither seen it nor read the text, to find it on line and read it — slowly.

Some highlights: “For the Jewish people, the journey to the promise of the state of Israel wound through countless generations. It involved centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice and pogroms and even genocide. Through it all, the Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home. And while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea – to be a free people in your homeland.”

It surely did not escape the attention of his audience that these last words — “to be a free people in your homeland” — are a direct quote from Hatikva, Israel’s anthem: lihyot am chofshi b’artzeinu.”

These may be thought simple rhetorical flourishes, but they set the stage for the message Obama sought to communicate, a message about security, peace and prosperity and the links that tie them together.

Security? “[M]ake no mistake: Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist – they might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel’s not going anywhere.” And: “[S]o long as there is a United States of America, “Attem lo l’vad – you are not alone.”

Describing himself as “a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future,” he pointedly noted that “Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, 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.” Plus, beyond demography, there’s the matter of empathy – of empathy and of justice.

“[T]he Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice must … be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements, not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank or displace Palestinian families from their homes. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.” (Or lihyot am chofshi b’artzam.)

“Peace is possible. I’m not saying it’s guaranteed. I can’t even say that it is more likely than not. But it is possible. Negotiations will be necessary, but there’s little secret about where they must lead: two states for two peoples.

“Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security. Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace and that an independent Palestine must be viable, with real borders that have to be drawn.

“Peace begins not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people; in the daily connections, that sense of empathy that takes place among those who live together in this land and in this sacred city of Jerusalem. And let me say this as a politician: Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see.

“Here, in this small strip of land that has been the center of so much of the world’s history, Israelis have built something that few could have imagined 65 years ago. Tomorrow I will pay tribute to that history – at the grave of Herzl, a man who had the foresight to see that the future of the Jewish people had to be reconnected to their past [and] at the grave of Rabin, who understood that Israel’s victories in war had to be followed by the battles for peace.

“We bear all that history on our shoulders. We carry all that history in our hearts. Today you, the young people of Israel, must write the next chapter in the great story of this great nation.

“That’s your job. That’s my job. That’s the task of all of us.”


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