Obama to Israelis: 'Put yourself' in Palestinians' shoes

President Obama took a fatherly approach in his speech to Israelis Thursday, both assuring them of America's commitment to their country and urging them to make the hard choices for peace.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama pauses during his speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center in Jerusalem, Israel, Thursday.
RIch Claubaugh/Staff
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem Thursday was appropriately delivered to a largely youthful audience, because in many ways the president’s tone and message were those of a father expressing unconditional support – even as he prods with lessons of tradition, compassion, and justice.

Mr. Obama went further than he ever had, perhaps further than any US president, in asserting America’s bonds with Israel. But having once established those unshakable links, he went on to admonish his listeners, as any father has his children: He urged them to have the strength and an ancestral sense of right to be even better human beings and correct the wrongs around them.

Obama’s admonitions in large part focused on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and the limitations that occupation would, in the long run, place on Israel’s fulfillment as a democratic Jewish state.

“Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes,” Obama told his Israeli audience – again, with a line any father has used. He went on to list the ways that Israel’s occupation “is not right” and is as damaging to Israelis as it is to Palestinians.

The speech set a tone that was appropriate, some analysts say, given Obama’s audience and his objectives.

“It is a speech in a fatherly mode, but the Israelis, and I would say the Palestinians, do need to put themselves in the other’s shoes,” says Doron Ben-Atar, a history professor at Fordham University in New York. “So what he did was absolutely necessary.”

Professor Ben-Atar, an Israeli-born American, says he heard as Obama’s central theme “his call for the people of the region to force their leaders to make peace.”

But Obama’s particular approach, others say, was to convince young Israelis that while “peace is hard” – as Obama put it a day earlier – they can make the hard choices for peace because it is “just.” And because America will always have Israel’s back, he said.

“I would call it the ‘blank check’ speech. Obama essentially told Israelis that they have unconditional support from America in perpetuity,” says Daniel Levy, a former Washington-based Middle East analyst who is now director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. “But like any unweighted unconditional gift, used wrongly the blank check could be ruinous.”

From there, Mr. Levy says, Obama made “the case for peace from a different angle.” He warned Israelis that without ending the occupation and making peace, “you will over time have less security;... you will not realize your full economic potential ... because absent peace and security, [Israel] will not become a true regional hub and global magnet;... you will become isolated, [and] finally ... you will not live up to your own traditions, your own standards, your own humanity,” Levy said.

What struck Levy as really “new” in the speech was Obama’s “direct appeal to the Israeli public ... to push their leaders to take risks for peace.”

Should Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expect a surge of pressure to take on the peace issue? Maybe not, if Obama’s history of high-profile speechmaking is repeated. The president’s much-touted Cairo speech in June 2009 was meant to launch a new relationship between America and the Muslim world. But if anything, that relationship is even more broken now.

Still, the basic question of “Will it make a difference?” hangs over the Jerusalem speech. Some very early barometer-reading is expected to take place Saturday, when Secretary of State John Kerry returns to Jerusalem from Jordan – the last stop of Obama’s four-day trip – to see what, if any, steps might be possible toward relaunching peace talks.

“My hunch is that Kerry will be tasked to come up with a plan that would eventually be presented in public if Obama decides at some stage in the coming year or more to go back to the Israeli public and to invest some capital in putting forward something concrete,” Levy says.

Two elements that Levy says he would expect to see as part of any renewed initiative: reconfirmation by Obama of the parameters for territory and security that he laid out in May 2011, and some restatement by Arab countries of the Arab peace initiative. Obama made passing but notable references to both elements in a Jerusalem press conference Wednesday, Levy notes.

But any new effort could hinge on whether the publics – Israelis and Palestinians – change course and begin to pressure their leaders to make peace a priority.

Most regional analysts are not optimistic. Palestinians view the decades-old “peace process” as a disaster that has allowed Israel to gobble up growing chunks of their land, they say, while many Israelis see their tumultuous neighborhood and favor hunkering down over reaching out.

“It’s true the Israelis are very much in their own shoes; they feel besieged,” says Ben-Atar of Fordham, referring to Obama’s call for Israelis to see the world from another perspective. “I don’t think there’s any doubt [Obama] redefined his relationship with Israel ... but we’ll have to see if something changed beyond that.”

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