Friday, March 22, 2013

Hussein Ibish and others explain why Obama's speech in Jerusalem was a Big Deal

Some further reactions, from the US and Israel, to Barack Obama's speech in Jerusalem (transcript here.)


The more I think about this speech, the more impressive and potentially important it looks. Here's the crucial point, in my opinion. It has long seemed clear to me that the only approach that can help promote a peaceful solution to the interconnected Arab-Israeli & Israeli-Palestinian conflicts (assuming that a peaceful solution remains a possibility, which I deeply hope is the case), the only approach that is both morally acceptable and practically realistic, has to be one that is simultaneously, and strongly, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian.  Obama's speech managed to deliver precisely that sort of message, and to do it convincingly.

And I'm not the only one with that reaction. I've been struck by how many analyses of Obama's speech and its implications come back, one way or another, to that central fact.

=>  First some Jewish examples, American and Israeli.

Jonathan Chait:
Here is the progression of his speech. Having demonstrated empathy for Israel, Obama then asked Israelis to feel empathy for Palestinians.

Of course there is only so much Obama can do. He can’t make Netanyahu negotiate peace, nor can he make Palestinians accept one. But as much as he could do with a speech, Obama did today. He probably wishes he gave it a long time ago.
Jeffrey Goldberg:
The speech was, overall, quite eloquent and strong, and very moving from the Jewish perspective (there were bits that were too naive for me, but more on that later). It is the setting, though, that made it brilliant: Standing ovations from young Israelis for an endorsement of a Palestinian state by an enthusiastically Zionist African-American President whose middle name is Hussein. How, exactly, did he pull that one off?
Yossi Klein Halevi
Barack Obama came to Jerusalem to win over the Israeli people, and with a single speech he did. It happened when he addressed an audience of several thousand young people in Jerusalem and delivered what may have been the most passionate Zionist speech ever given by an American president.

Of course, his embrace had an explicit message for Israelis: Don't give up on the dream of peace and don't forget that the Palestinians deserve a state just as you do. But as the repeated ovations from the politically and culturally diverse audience revealed, these are messages that Israelis can hear when couched in affection and solidarity. After four years of missed signals, Obama finally realized that Israelis respond far more to love than to pressure.  [....]

[F]or Israelis, the least credible part of his talk was when he tried to convince us that Mahmoud Abbas is ready to make peace—or that the Arab Spring has created an opening for reconciliation with the Middle East. That's hardly the reality we see emerging around us. [....]

[But in] one sense Obama did succeed. Next time the Israeli government announces a settlement expansion, there will likely be widespread opposition, rather than indifference, among the public. Obama has reminded us that, even in the absence of peace, we have a responsibility not to take steps that will make an eventual peace all the more difficult.
Bradley Burston (in Ha'aretz):
For Barack Obama to come to Jerusalem, and speak to Israeli students and talk persuasively of the possibility of a secure and peaceful future, for him to do that and garner a roaring ovation of approval, he would have to have given one hell of a speech.

He did.

This was the speech that these young Israelis not only needed but wanted to hear. [....]

This was not the student crowd that Obama is used to. These students are Israelis. This is a crowd that is world-weary, hair-trigger volatile. They have come by it honestly. In comparison to their American counterparts, they are, by and large, older by several years – some would say, several lifetimes. They enter college after years in the military, often followed by the escape-valve rehab of a marathon trek to remote continents.

They know a snow job when they hear it. And the rare times when someone makes a sincere and enormous effort to understand them, to see things from their point of view, and to bring them a message that no leader in Israel has managed to bring them, they know that too. [....] They roared approval for Obama's view of security, which was hard-edged and unapologetic, and they roared approval for his vision of a two-state solution that allows Palestinians to enjoy the freedoms and self-determination Israelis know.

This will not be the same country after this speech.

Not soon. Perhaps not in many years. But this is one way that change happens. An event like this, inspiration like this, does not in the end go to waste. It gives new strength to the world-weary and the habitually trashed. It changes momentum. It creates momentum. It does good. It makes way for better.
Maybe.  David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel and one of those former peaceniks traumatically disillusioned a decade ago by the violence of the Second Intifada and everything that followed, put it this way:
Barack Obama, widely perceived by Israelis before this visit as a cold president, a leader dutifully supporting Israel but lacking any real empathy for it, transformed that image in the course of the powerhouse central address of his visit here on Thursday afternoon — for the 1,000 ecstatic young Israelis in Jerusalem’s International Conference Center, and doubtless for many, many Israelis watching on live television nationwide.

He also, deftly and subtly, unveiled a vision for Israel that all Israelis would love to realize — an Israel at peace, in a region at peace, thriving financially, admired morally, no longer at physical risk.

But the route he set out to that glorious future — don’t be daunted by the risks or deterred by the extremists, work assiduously to build trust with the Palestinians and those many in the region who he said seek the very same future as young Israelis do — that’s where his utopian vision became anything but consensual. Indeed it resonated as an unmistakable challenge to the skepticism of the Israeli political leadership under “my friend Bibi.” For this was the address of a passionate, pro-Israel advocate, a true friend, a Zionist. A left-wing Zionist, employing his charisma, his authority and his oratory to try to shift Israelis into his camp.  [JW: That's "left-wing" in the idiosyncratic sense that the terms "left" and "right" have in Israeli political discourse, where they refer overwhelmingly to perspectives on the Arab-Israeli & Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.]

It was a deft, brilliantly conceived speech. He told Israelis how moral they are, how admirably creative they are, how smart with those 10 Nobel prizes, how democratic, how prosperous, and how mighty — the most powerful country in the region. He told them that the world’s strongest nation stood unshakably with them. “So long as there is a United States of America, Atem Lo Levad” — you are not alone.

And having built them up, convinced them of their near-invincibility, he showed them a theoretical future that he insisted could be realized if they would only trust in their strength sufficiently to take risks for peace. A future in which the security threats will recede. The prosperity will increase. The moral stain of occupation will disappear. All it takes is that determined, constant push for peace. How could they refuse him?  [....]

Danny Ayalon, Israel’s former deputy foreign minister, said immediately afterwards that the speech was “no problem” for Netanyahu because Obama hadn’t specified border lines. Which rather missed the point. The speech is no problem for Netanyahu unless Israelis buy into its core premise — that if Israel only pushes harder for reconciliation, regional hostility to Israel will gradually melt. On that, as the elections proved in January, Israelis are thoroughly divided.

Emotionally, Obama’s speech was profoundly affecting, and will likely have moved many Israelis, shifting their opinion of him, winning them over. Shifting them politically? That’s something quite different.
=> And then there is the assessment offered by the Arab-American political analyst Hussein Ibish. Ibish is consistently intelligent and insightful, not to mention exceptionally sane and balanced, so his reaction to Obama's speech deserves careful attention.  I recommend reading the whole thing (below), but here are some highlights:
U.S. President Barack Obama's speech in Jerusalem was without question the strongest ever made by a senior American politician on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was plainly designed to speak directly to the Israeli and Palestinian peoples [JW: and to the larger Arab world, as Ibish mentions a little later] over the heads of their political leaderships. It was an exercise in public diplomacy par excellence, intended to change the tone and atmosphere, and public perceptions of Obama himself, presumably as an adjunct to actual diplomatic efforts to lay the groundwork for eventually resuming negotiations.

The psychological, communication and political skill that was marshaled to give the speech its maximum impact with public opinion was quite extraordinary, and stands in contrast to some miscalculations Obama made about Israeli and Palestinian perceptions during his first term. By systematically downplaying expectations for his trip, Obama made the power of his speech and the boldness of some of the language and positions he staked out -- particularly regarding the realities Palestinians face under Israeli occupation -- surprising and therefore all the more striking.

Obama made the first day of his trip an extended exercise in telling the Israeli public everything it could possibly want to hear from an American president, ranging from "undying bonds of friendship" to robust reiterations of security commitment and a much yearned-for acknowledgment of the long Jewish history in the land. In retrospect, it's clear that what looked like public outreach bordering on pandering was, in fact, designed to transform Israeli perceptions of Obama himself in order to prepare them for some of the hard truths he was preparing to deliver the next day.

What Obama has done is to reassure and challenge Israelis and Palestinians alike. To Israelis, he reiterated America's undying support and commitment to Israel's security. But he confronted them with the fact that "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." He reassured Palestinians that the United States is not walking away from the effort to create an independent Palestinian state. But he told them they must recognize that "Israel will be a Jewish state" and challenged them, and the rest of the Arab world, to begin to normalize their relations with Israel. [....]

Diplomacy without sufficient outreach may have proven to be a failure in Obama's first term. But this kind of bravura performance of public diplomacy will have to be backed up with significant real diplomacy or it may be remembered as yet another inspiring Obama Middle East speech that ultimately produces more disappointment than tangible achievement. Still, if Obama was primarily trying to change the tone and the atmosphere in the region, and the way he is perceived by ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, it's hard to imagine how he could have been more effective than he has been over the past couple of days.
Now we'll see how things go from here.

Hoping for the best (skeptically, but not despairingly),
Jeff Weintraub

[UPDATE:  Gershom Gorenberg and Gideon Levy also agree that Obama's Jerusalem speech was a Big Deal, for essentially the same reasons outlined above.]

===================================
Foreign Policy
Crowdsourcing Peace
By going over the heads of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Obama is demanding that their people step up.
By Hussein Ibish

U.S. President Barack Obama's speech in Jerusalem was without question the strongest ever made by a senior American politician on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was plainly designed to speak directly to the Israeli and Palestinian peoples over the heads of their political leaderships. It was an exercise in public diplomacy par excellence, intended to change the tone and atmosphere, and public perceptions of Obama himself, presumably as an adjunct to actual diplomatic efforts to lay the groundwork for eventually resuming negotiations.

The psychological, communication and political skill that was marshaled to give the speech its maximum impact with public opinion was quite extraordinary, and stands in contrast to some miscalculations Obama made about Israeli and Palestinian perceptions during his first term. By systematically downplaying expectations for his trip, Obama made the power of his speech and the boldness of some of the language and positions he staked out -- particularly regarding the realities Palestinians face under Israeli occupation -- surprising and therefore all the more striking.

Obama made the first day of his trip an extended exercise in telling the Israeli public everything it could possibly want to hear from an American president, ranging from "undying bonds of friendship" to robust reiterations of security commitment and a much yearned-for acknowledgment of the long Jewish history in the land. In retrospect, it's clear that what looked like public outreach bordering on pandering was, in fact, designed to transform Israeli perceptions of Obama himself in order to prepare them for some of the hard truths he was preparing to deliver the next day. What Obama has done is to reassure and challenge Israelis and Palestinians alike. To Israelis, he reiterated America's undying support and commitment to Israel's security. But he confronted them with the fact that "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." He reassured Palestinians that the United States is not walking away from the effort to create an independent Palestinian state. But he told them they must recognize that "Israel will be a Jewish state" and challenged them, and the rest of the Arab world, to begin to normalize their relations with Israel.

From a Palestinian point of view, it was already highly significant that Obama was not just going to Israel but also Ramallah and Bethlehem for significant talks with both President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. This communicated several important messages: that the Palestinians are still an important factor in the equation, and that they have a leadership, including both Abbas and Fayyad, that is to be engaged with seriously. And by specifically and repeatedly citing the Palestinian Authority's institution-building and security measures led by Fayyad, Obama was sending a clear signal that he wants to continue to deal with the present Palestinian prime minister, who has been under considerable political pressure in recent months.

But the speech itself gave the Palestinians a much deeper recognition, and one they've never fully received from American officials in the past. Obama went to enormous lengths to humanize the Palestinians, comparing them to his own daughters and to the young people of Israel. He did not simply reiterate the American commitment to a two-state solution, he spoke of the "Palestinian people's right to ... justice." This can only be seen as a clear, albeit implicit statement that the status quo of occupation is an ongoing injustice. He challenged his Israeli audience to "look at the world through their [Palestinian] eyes," which speaks to the Palestinian need to be acknowledged as fully equal human beings by the Israelis. And Obama admonished Israel that "neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer," directly addressing the two main Palestinian historical traumas and ongoing anxieties.

The effectiveness of Obama's careful political and psychological preparation for these unprecedented statements with his Israeli audience was demonstrated by the sustained, and otherwise unimaginable, applause he received for almost all these remarks. He clearly went a long way in assuaging Israeli skepticism. Palestinians will be harder to win over, as they require more than words given the onerous conditions of the occupation and their repeated disappointment with successive American governments, and in particular with Obama's first term.

There is no question that Obama's extraordinary speech will have a significant impact on how he is perceived by both Israelis and Palestinians, although how long that lasts and what kind of political or diplomatic impact it will have very much remains to be seen.

One of the more remarkable aspects of this outreach was how it stood in stark contrast to his diplomacy with political leaders. He explicitly told the Israeli and Palestinian publics that he was directly addressing them, not only over the heads of their political leaders, but in order to challenge them to confront those leaders. If entrenched politicians have become an obstacle to peace -- and they may indeed have -- why not go around them? "Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do," he said, adding, "You must create the change that you want to see."

Essentially, Obama was saying, "If you like what you've heard today, you have to help me because your leaders aren't going to cooperate without significant pressure from you. I can't do this alone, as I discovered in my first term. I need your help."

In his first term, Obama essentially tried dealing with the leaderships directly and barely engaging with the Israeli or Palestinian publics. One subliminal message of his speech might be that he discovered this approach is a dead end, and that to get beyond the present impasse requires more robust public engagement. Whether he's done enough to promote or sustain that will have to remain to be seen.

Diplomacy without sufficient outreach may have proven to be a failure in Obama's first term. But this kind of bravura performance of public diplomacy will have to be backed up with significant real diplomacy or it may be remembered as yet another inspiring Obama Middle East speech that ultimately produces more disappointment than tangible achievement. Still, if Obama was primarily trying to change the tone and the atmosphere in the region, and the way he is perceived by ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, it's hard to imagine how he could have been more effective than he has been over the past couple of days.

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