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Obama`s Oratory vs. the Reality of Israel and PalestineBy Michael Cohen,
Michael Cohen
Reader Supported News
22 March 13

Obama delivered a fine speech in Jerusalem, but is he willing to invest the political capital to turn words into action on peace?

President Obama gave a excellent speech in Jerusalem Thursday about the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He called on Israelis to recognize the moral and security imperative of a Palestinian state. He highlighted the threats to Israeli democracy if the Jewish state continues on its present course. And he asked that Israelis view Palestinians not as suicide bombers or potential terrorists, but rather as human beings with the same desire for freedom and self-determination as the Jewish people.

These are important words and ones that are refreshing when they come from the mouth of an American president.

In some circles, Obama`s speech is already being hailed as a historic set of remarks - but such words are only historic in the constricted manner in which American politicians are allowed to talk about Israel and the peace process. This wasn`t a speaking of hard truths; it was a speech narrowly directed at Israelis. And it was a reassurance for them about the benefits of a Palestinian state and the US commitment to Israel.

Oddly, Obama, by making these points, was pushing against an open door. Israelis largely accept the idea of a Palestinian state: opinion polls show two-thirds of Israelis support a two-state solution - and accept the idea of Palestinian state that conforms to the 1967 borders.

What holds them back is a strong conviction that such an arrangement can never be realized - and that the Palestinian leadership can never be a true partner for peace. What they need, to coin a phrase, is a roadmap to peace. And here Obama had little to offer but exhortation:

`For the moment, put aside the plans and process. I ask you, instead, to think about what can be done to build trust between people.`
But the days of building trust between Israelis and Palestinians have passed. That trust isn`t going to be built - not when, for most Israelis, the occupation has become an abstraction. And neither side can wait for such a goal to be achieved. What is needed is plans and process - and an active US role in bringing both sides together. There was far too little of that in this speech.

While Obama deserves credit for pushing Israelis to understand the need for reconciliation, he didn`t push hard enough. He was right to point out that the threats to Israeli democracy are real. But a more honest statement would be that Israelis face a clear and quickening choice - between a meaningful democracy and a future Israel that could be a veritable apartheid state where an Israeli minority rules over a captive population that lacks full political rights.

Obama was right to point out that `continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace`, but plenty of American presidents have said this. What was needed was a clear statement that continued settlement expansion, particularly in the controversial E1 section of the West Bank, will make the realization of a Palestinian state impossible.

Finally, Obama was right to point out that Israel faces a growing `undertow of isolation` and that peace is the only path to security. But what really needs to be said is that the absence of peace - and the absence of Israeli politicians willing to take any real political risks - will almost certainly mean a future of international isolation, or renewed violence from the West Bank. Above all, he needed to say that the clock is ticking on that rather unpleasant potentiality.

Of course, the burden of reconciliation rests not only on Israelis. Obama was right to highlight Palestinian intransigence, while also arguing that the current Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is a `true partner for peace`. Israelis face a tough choices in their relations with the Palestinians, but anyone who argues that the change must come only from Israelis is not being honest.

Israel finds itself at difficult moment: most Israelis accept the need for a Palestinian state, but they also find the status quo preferable - and they are resistant to embrace painful realities and potential dangers. If the recent Israeli election showed us anything, it is that the nation`s political leaders will not provide the impetus for change, nor be the ones to push the Israeli people toward accepting the risks that come with peace.

And yet, one would be hard-pressed to find many in Israel who believe that a continuation of the status quo is possible. But there is little energy or incentive to change the dangerous path Israel is on. US leadership - pushing Israel more forthrightly toward peace - is essential. Speeches that recount the benefits of peace are well and good, but they feel almost tangential from where the conflict stands today, given the urgent need for progress and active US leadership.

That is asking a lot of President Obama. As the recent hearings for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have demonstrated, there isn`t much in the way of domestic political incentive in the US for taking positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict that involve speaking hard truths about Israel and the prospects for peace. And with plenty of challenges at home, there`s good reason for Obama not to want to expend political capital with the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Almost all observers of the region agree that the only outside force with the potential to push the peace process forward - in a nonviolent manner - is the United States. A more engaged US effort on the peace process should bring results, but there is no guarantee. It will mean putting pressure, where necessary, on Israel.

One takeaway from Obama`s words was that he believes strongly about what needs to happen between Israelis and Palestinians. Whether he is willing to put his administration`s prestige on the line toward achieving that goal is far less clear.

This was a memorable speech: Obama said things that Israelis need to hear from a US president. But nothing that happened on Thursday in Jerusalem will do much to make a two-state solution more likely to be realized. More than ever, both Israelis and Palestinians need not words, but actions from a US president. It remains to be seen whether those will be forthcoming.

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