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That Old Obama Magic

March 22, 2013

“You have great works to do,the planting of a new heaven and a new earth among us, and great works have great enemies.”

Stephen Marshall, 1641

President Obama has shown an extraordinary ability to rise to extraordinary occasions. We saw that facility on full display this week in the Middle East. We saw a tactical genius doing his best work.

Most presidents travel to Israel at some point, so President Obama’s Middle East trip did not especially raise expectations. In fact, by making a point of going to “listen,” and bringing no peace plan of his own, the President lowered expectations.

Obama declined to address the Knesset, opting instead to speak to a university crowd that the New York Times characterized as “students and left-wing peace activists.” The speech was a masterpiece, and it won Israeli hearts and minds.

Obama’s target audience wasn’t the people attending the speech. The internationally televised speech was intended for the broader Israeli and Arab publics.

About half-way into the speech, President Obama argued that “peace is necessary” – peace is necessary for Israeli security, for the long-term future of the Jewish state, for the preservation of the Zionist dream. He then argued that “peace is just.” In the most extraordinary passage of the speech, Obama appealed to Israelis to see through Palestinian eyes:Net

“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.”

This passage of the speech was interrupted by enthusiastic applause five times. Some have taken President Obama’s speech as an effort to put pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make concessions to the Palestinians, but I think Obama’s tactics were more subtle and complex. My point comes from the fact that President Obama deliberately chose to make this speech at a university, not at the Knesset. In other words, he knew that he could craft his speech so that when he got to his appeal for justice for Palestinians, he would get applause. A strong reception for that appeal was essential to the success of the speech, and he wouldn’t have gotten that reception from the Knesset.

In other words, the cheering for Obama’s speech was as much a part of the stagecraft as was the speech itself. Both the Israeli public and the Palestinian public saw the speech, and saw the reception it got from an Israeli audience.

The Israeli public saw President Obama first establishing his empathy with Zionist Israel, then appealing to Israeli self-interest in making peace with Palestinians – and the university audience wildly endorsing his call.

Israelis just elected a new Knesset, and the coalition government was seated last week. One of the coalition parties, Yesh Atid, ran on a platform that included a “two states for two peoples” plank. Yesh Atid holds 19 seats, without which Netanyahu’s government has no majority.

Netanyahu himself favors the two-state solution. And Netanyahu holds the foreign ministry pending outcome of Avigdor Lieberman’s trial on corruption charges.

On the other hand, Netanyahu’s coalition includes The Jewish Home, a right-wing party that advocates annexation of large parts of the West Bank. The Jewish Home holds 12 Knesset seats, and is therefore also essential to Netanyahu’s governing majority. So Obama’s speech was intended to pressure The Jewish Home; it was intended to give Prime Minister Netanyahu some bargaining space.

The Israeli public saw a couple of other things. One was that President Obama explicitly dropped his former demand that Israel suspend further construction of settlements as a precondition to negotiations with the Palestinians. 

Another thing the Israeli public saw was President Obama’s unqualified endorsement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a negotiating partner. Abbas’s foes over in Gaza did Abbas a solid by sending a few missiles into southern Israel, where they crashed without any effect except to underscore Abbas’s  moderation and his preference for dialog over warfare.  That is, the Gazan attack only verified Abbas’s standing as Israel’s only Palestinian negotiating partner.

The Palestinian public, and the broader Arab public, saw President Obama appealing to Israelis to see the world through Palestinian eyes – and they saw Israelis applaud the sentiment. Of course these Israelis weren’t quite randomly selected, and of course they aren’t the Israelis who call the country’s shots. Still, the image of Israelis applauding a call for compassion and justice for Palestinians had to have impact in the Arab world.

Thus Obama may have bought Abbas just a little more room to make the concessions that are needed now to start building confidence toward a full-fledged negotiation on a two-state solution. Already President Abbas fudged the question whether cessation of settlement activity is a precondition to negotiations –  which was widely interpreted as an important concession by Abbas.

Before President Obama left Israel, he got Prime Minister Netanyahu to call up Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdogan to apologize for the Israeli commando raid that killed nine people on the Turkish ship in 2010. That was certainly an important concession by Netanyahu. The two nations agreed to exchange ambassadors and restore full diplomatic relations, which is a solid, productive result of Netanyahu’s concession.

In other words, both the Israeli and the Arab publics got to see Obama’s speech, the audience’s reaction to his speech – and real and significant results of Obama’s visit to Israel.

Secretary of State John Kerry heads back to Jerusalem tomorrow for follow-up discussions – which will presumably be less public, and more nuts-and-bolts. Meanwhile, Israeli commentator Yossi Halevi said that Israelis heard Obama’s message that Israel’s actions on the West Bank have detrimental effects on Israel’s own interests: “Next time there’s an announcement of settlement expansion, large parts of the public will react with anger rather than indifference.”

President Obama left Israel today for Amman, where he met with Jordanian King Abdullah. The conflict in Syria was high on their agenda. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stands accused of using chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. What actions might President Obama take that show a commitment to the well-being of Arab peoples?

I’m not saying, Henry Kissinger-like, that peace is at hand. Peace between Israel and Palestine can’t be made by Americans, it has to be made by Israelis and Palestinians. But President Obama showed the Israelis and Palestinians the path to peace, and he did as much as any outsider can do to remove the obstacles along that path.


March 23, 2013 – Today’s New York Times runs short essays by nine students who were in the audience for President Obama’s speech. They come from a variety of backgrounds and points of view. Most are Jews, some are Arabs, and all are thoughtful and interesting. I highly recommend the essays.

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