Thursday, March 21, 2013

Barack Obama's speech in Jerusalem

Barack Obama just gave a very good speech in Jerusalem, in which he was clearly trying to speak directly to the Israeli public.  Not a great speech, and not without problematic moments and some noticeable omissions and evasions, but a strong, serious, and substantial speech that made some important and difficult points effectively and, with luck, may even have some constructive impact.

You can read the text of Obama's speech here and watch it on video here.

   I may (or may not) say more about the speech and its possible implications later, but in the meantime I will just quote some quick reactions from Jeffrey Goldberg (who is not always right about everything, but tends to be right more often and more reliably than most of the rest of us, so his reactions and reflections are always worth taking seriously):
I'm off to do a couple of interviews, but I thought I would just jot down a few early reactions to the president's speech in Jerusalem. It was a very strong speech -- there were a couple of flat, campaign-like moments -- but overall it was strong. The President was a bit more blunt than I thought [expected?], but his bluntness was rewarded by loud cheers from his youngish audience when he talked about the need to create a Palestinian state. (On the other hand, I was sitting near the head of the settlers' council, who seemed ready to explode with anger.) I'm imagining that the Israeli reaction to Obama's call will come as a pleasant surprise to at least some Palestinians.

The President answered the kishka question -- the gut question -- pretty well. Some people won't be satisfied, but the president conveyed, over and over again, that he stands with Israel, he believes in Israel, and so long as there is a United States, there will be an Israel. He spoke well about the Jewish connection to the land, and made it abundantly clear he believes that Zionism is a genuine and justified national liberation movement rooted in ancient history and tradition. And he spoke well of his appreciation for Judaism, exploring its relationship to his own tradition [....]

I spoke to several members of the audience, who confirmed my impression that Israelis just wanted to know that he liked them. It's hard to understand this from the U.S., but the idea really did take hold here that Obama genuinely hated Israel. So this whole trip is a bit of a revelation for ordinary Israelis.

On the other hand, I've run into people who were surprised President Obama took it too strong [so strong?] to Bibi (one conservative-leaning Israeli I just ran into suggested that Obama was interfering in Israeli politics as payback for Netanyahu's alleged meddling in the American election). Obama pleaded with his audience to challenge their leaders on the question of peace and compromise. I guess the whole Bibi-Barack love festival has an expiration date.

One more note: the President spoke most feelingly, I think, when he asked Israelis to imagine the lives of Palestinian children, and asked Israelis to put themselves in the shoes of Palestinians. This seemed reasonable to me, but it probably caused Netanyahu, watching on television, to say, "Well, yes, but first the Palestinians have to understand what it's like to be an Israeli." I've very seldom run into Palestinians and Israelis who can imagine what life is like on the other side without quickly resorting to demands that the other side do so first. Which is part of the problem.

More to come.
–Jeff Weintraub