When I read the part of President Obama’s speech to the UN yesterday (May 21, 2011) that dealt with Israel and the Palestinians — which, by the way, was only a small part of it — I was surprised.
I had read Palestinian and Israeli reactions to it first, and judging from them, I would have thought it represented a major tilt toward Israel. But what I saw in the text was more or less a reiteration of prior positions. So why was Mahmoud Abbas covering his eyes, and why did Israeli PM Netanyahu thank Obama so effusively? Let’s look at what Obama said — and didn’t say.
One year ago, I stood at this podium and I called for an independent Palestine. I believed then, and I believe now, that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said is that a genuine peace can only be realized between the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves. One year later, despite extensive efforts by America and others, the parties have not bridged their differences. Faced with this stalemate, I put forward a new basis for negotiations in May of this year. That basis is clear. It’s well known to all of us here. Israelis must know that any agreement provides assurances for their security. Palestinians deserve to know the territorial basis of their state.
Well, Abbas should have liked that. Obama emphasized his commitment to a Palestinian state and reaffirmed the plan that he put forward in May, pre-1967 lines plus swaps — and everything else in that plan, which I and many others felt represented a aharp pro-Palestinian shift in the US position.
Now, I know that many are frustrated by the lack of progress. I assure you, so am I. But the question isn’t the goal that we seek — the question is how do we reach that goal. And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations — if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians — not us –- who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and on security, on refugees and Jerusalem.
Abbas has known for months that the US opposed a unilateral declaration of statehood at the UN. There is nothing new here. Did Abbas harbor a secret hope that Obama would finally hand him Israel on a silver platter, with no compromises required? If so, where did he get that idea? Certainly not from the public statements of the President, which — no matter how pro-Palestinian they may have been — always called for an agreement between the parties.
We seek a future where Palestinians live in a sovereign state of their own, with no limit to what they can achieve. There’s no question that the Palestinians have seen that vision delayed for too long. It is precisely because we believe so strongly in the aspirations of the Palestinian people that America has invested so much time and so much effort in the building of a Palestinian state, and the negotiations that can deliver a Palestinian state.
But understand this as well: America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. Our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day.
Again, this is precisely what he said in May. But what comes next is interesting — not because there is any substantive policy change, but because of the tone:
Let us be honest with ourselves: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, look out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and fresh memories of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they are. Those are facts. They cannot be denied. (my emphasis)
Here Obama recognizes:
- The wider context of the conflict. It is not all about the Palestinians getting their ‘rights,’ an Israeli Goliath persecuting an Arab David. Israel is tiny, surrounded by hostile neighbors with large populations. It is in danger.
- The fact of hateful incitement against Israel and Jews by both the Palestinians and Israel’s other neighbors.
- The part played by specifically Palestinian terrorism — the rockets and suicide bombers.
- The real threat of Iran.
This directly contradicts the line of the anti-Zionist Left in the US and Europe. It must have infuriated Obama’s friend Rashid Khalidi. And it isn’t the sort of thing advisers like Samantha Power would be likely to agree with.
And now comes the real zinger:
The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine.
Although it is again not new in US policy, this indicates an understanding of the Israeli demand that Israel must be recognized as the nation of the Jewish people. It is in direct contradiction to the Palestinian position that there is no Jewish people (only a religion), and that Israel in fact ‘belongs’ to the Palestinian Arabs who should have the right to ‘return’ to their ‘original homes’ in Israel (where probably less than 1% of today’s ‘Palestinians’ ever lived).
Of course, I would have preferred an unequivocal statement that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish People. Nevertheless, I see the statement that Israel is our historic homeland as very significant. This may have been the moment that Abbas put his hand over his eyes.
And what didn’t he say?
He did not mention settlements or construction therein. He did not blame Israel or PM Netanyahu for the failure of bilateral negotiations. He did not make any new demands on Israel.
From a diplomatic point of view there is absolutely nothing new. But in a rhetorical sense, it was a very pro-Israel speech.
So we’re left with this question:
Was this a true expression of heretofore hidden warmth toward the Jewish state and its leadership, a warmth which was definitely not present in Obama’s Cairo speech, his Arab Spring speech, or his treatment of Netanyahu on several occasions?
Or was it a cynical exercise to mollify pro-Israel American voters who have found his policy abhorrent, a carefully crafted way to give the impression of a changed policy without actually changing it?