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Obama's speech: Israel's Left and Right can be happy, and the occupation is here to stay

Some initial thoughts on President Barack Obama’s speech in Jerusalem (full text here):

Measuring the value or effect of a speech on its own is futile. Words matter in a political context, power relations and the actions that they accompany. Just as nobody seriously thinks that a good speech can make health care reform pass in the House, Obama’s speech needs to be evaluated within the politics that surrounded his first term and his current visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories.

On the level of words and rhetoric, there was a mixture of “good” and “bad” in Obama’s speech. The worst parts, I think, were the reaffirmation of the Israeli perception, according to which Israeli governments continue seeking peace but have been answered by Arab refusal. When there is a comprehensive peace offer on the table from ALL Arab regimes – the so called Saudi Peace Initiative – which Israel has chosen to ignore for over a decade, such rhetoric on the part of the president only helps Israelis to continue avoid facing the truth. The president also backed the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, something that Netanyahu introduced as a way to avoid meaningful talks. No previous Israeli government has put forward such a demand, but after Obama backed it, now everyone will. Bad move.

On the positive side, there were some very clear words about the occupation, and they were based not only on Israeli interests, but also on moral values and the Palestinian right to freedom. I want to post this part here, because these are important and truthful words:

“[The] Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. 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.”

Still, without meaningful political actions, this was an empty effort. Everybody in Israel can be happy with the president’s speech: the Left heard all those niceties regarding peace, while the Right proved that the occupation has no cost, that the rift with the U.S. doesn’t exist and that denying the Palestinians their freedom is sustainable policy (examples here, here). At the end of the day, Netanyahu’s confrontational attitude has humbled the U.S. president and changed both his tactics and his goals on the Israeli/Palestinian issue. The prime minister payed a price for his politics, no doubt – seeing the president talking to Israelis over his head was surely unpleasant, and could further diminish his popularity – but Netanyahu was nevertheless able to maintain the status quo on the Palestinian issue, which is both something he believes in, and the key to his political survival.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. xyz

      (1) What have the Arabs done in order to sell their “peace plan” to Israel other than take out a single advertisement in Israeli newspapers a few years ago? Did they send a delegation here to Israel in order to persuade Israelis to adopt it? I don’t recall hearing about anything like this. In any event, many of the Arab leaders who supposedly supported it are now dead or out of power. Does Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood support it? What about the jihadists fighting Assad? What about HAMAS?

      (2) I have hear that it was NOT Netanyahu who introduced the the idea of having the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, it was Olmert. (please correct me if I am wrong). In any event, what is wrong with this demand? The Palestinians have demanded that Israel recognize a Palestinian right to self-determination?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Danny

      @Noam – what about Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni? Hasn’t this speech given these two parties ammunition to put pressure on Netanyahu to move forward with negotiations with Abbas? At the very least, Livni will be able to go forward with her party’s mandate to negotiate peace with the Palestinians.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Would Yesh Atid sacrifice their social agenda on the altar of a peace process? Nope. What authority does Livni have to actually negotiate? She can certainly talk but can she actually make any decisions? Does Livni have the capacity to get a settlement freeze in place? Nope. If you see negotiations take place it will be because the Palestinians got forced into climbing down off their preconditions tree towards some kind of interim agreement.

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        • TobyR

          “Would Yesh Atid sacrifice their social agenda on the altar of a peace process?”

          Haven’t they already sacrificed it on the altar of settlements?

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Hardly. The only way they get their social agenda through is by ignoring the Palestinians, which is what they are doing.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Kolumn9

      I don’t see Bibi paying any price here. The US president made several seriously Zionist speeches IN ISRAEL and endorsed Bibi’s demand for the recognition by the Palestinians of Israel as a Jewish state.

      Bibi comes out of this with his policy over the past four years reaffirmed. He took on an unfriendly US administration and got a US president to make a speech in Ben Gurion about the 3,000 year old connection of Jews to the land of Israel and the unbreakable alliance between Israel and the US.

      If anything Bibi gets a popularity boost over this.

      Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        What about Obama telling the students to demand of their leaders (i.e. Netanyahu) to make peace with the Palestinians? I heard some pretty loud clapping in response to that statement. I wonder if Netanyahu heard it too.

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        • Kolumn9

          What about it? An American president gave a great left-wing Zionist speech and people responded with rousing applause. He told the students to demand their leaders make peace with the Palestinians. Great.. There may be a couple more activists for Meretz at Hebrew University next year and Meretz might get a couple of hundred more votes whenever the elections are held next time. In the meantime the government will declare in all forums that it is committed to peace and ready for peace talks. And the status quo rumbles on.

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        • XYZ

          The Middle East conflict has been going on for decades and involves millions of people with definite ideas about what they want. Do you seriously think one speech by a President who doesn’t even live in the area is going to make a differenc? I recall how people claimed that Begin and Sadat, and Rabin and Arafat were “making history” and were making titantic changes in the Middle East and would be remembered for generations as “peace makers”. Now, some years later, all this “peace making” has been more or less forgotten. Presidents like Obama come and go. The people and their historical conciousness remains.

          Reply to Comment
          • Danny

            Begin and Sadat didn’t make history? What planet are you from?

            Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood and probably most Egyptians) view the peace agreement as more or less a dead letter which is only nominally adhered to due to Egypt’s desparate economic situation which keeps American handouts coming in. Do you think Mursi and the MB view the peace treaty as marking a “historic reconciliation” between Israel and Egypt? Even Sadat didn’t believe that and he even said so to his people, comparing it to Muhammed’s cease-fire with the Quraish. That’s how Egyptian’s view it…as a temporary cease-fire which will last as long as it suits their interests.

            Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood consider the peace agreement a dead letter and say so openly. It is only nominally adhered to because of Egypt’s dire financial situation which requires them to receive American handouts which the Americans make dependent on Egypt maintaining the agreement. Does the average Egyptian view Sadat as some sort of great man of historical importance because he was making a hitorical reconciliation between Egypt and Israel. Sadat himself compared the agreement with that that Muhammed made with the Quraish…a temporary cease-fire that will be honored as long as it suits their interests.

            Reply to Comment
    4. aristeides

      How is it the truth to state a goal that you intend to block at every opportunity? Obama is nothing but lies and always has been.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Paul Seligman (@PaulMSeligman)

      I think most people are missing the key importance of Obama’s speech to Israeli students.

      Let’s put it in context. The US wants a strong militarised ally in the region to protect its interests and as a major trading and R&D partner.

      But after all the reaffirmation of the unbreakable bonds, the wonders of Zionism, the achievements of Israel, all establishing him as a friend to an eternal Jewish state forever, and one the US will always defend, Obama says some very interesting things.

      He tells Israelis to note the demographic balance West of the Jordan. he tells them the only way Israel can be defended long term is through peace and and to war.

      He condemns settler violence, he condemns settler expansion, he says the Palestinians have a right to self-determination. He dismisses the dreams of expulsion or continued occupation of Greater Israel.

      Call it rhetoric, believe there will be no back up by all means. But these points are important because until most Israelis realise that there must be a free future for two peoples, west of the Jordan, with the right to self-determination for each, not much will change either.

      And the US knows the current Israeli approach will not end as the Israeli main-stream and right wings would like. So he offers the two state solution, because the expansionist settler state will not last forever.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Obama used the word “expunge” and decried settler violence; he implicitly held settler violence to be a violation of the rule of law. Since there is some expunging of Bank residents from their land, he has effectively alienated the US from Israeli State policy. The US is not against Zionism as such; the free ingress of Jews into Israel was accepted as Israel’s foundation. The “Jewish State” is code for denying a complete or even partial “right of return.” Apart from that, it has very little sense. If demographic rates altered radically in Israel such that Arab citizens threatened a majority, Abbas’ mouthing of a “Jewish State” would have no import at all. Jimmy Carter also recognizes that the “right of return” can be little more than symbolic.

      Obama has said that the occupation is repressive (which right commentators gleefully assert as well); that expunging residents from their born land is occurring and is wrong; that settler violence is wrong; that there is no neutral rule of law when it comes to settlers; and that, by implication of how settlers are treated by Israel, settlements themselves are wrong.

      And he can do nothing other than say so. I read him as saying “you will pay internally if you don’t solve ths.” And I think the Administration will continue to say so privately. He has differentiated the strategic alliance from occupation and its outcomes. Only Israel can change what it is becoming. To say that settler violence will be curtailed once the PA admits “no precondtions” is ludicrous bullying. The rule of law is not a poker chip.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Giora Me'ir

      The whole trip is as bad as I expected. Obama thinks that by making nice to Netanyahu and “charming” Israelis it will make it easier for him to pressure the current government. He still doesn’t understand that he’s dealing with an ideology that it is determined to keep control of the entirety of the former Palestine, with bantustan-like “authority” for pockets of the area.

      The only thing Netanyahu and Co. will respond to is the threat of removal of U.S. support. Both economic and political. As he’s had since the beginning, Obama has it in his power to make, and carry out, those threats. But he refuses to do so because of domestic political concerns. Political courage is not one of his strong points.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        > former Palestine

        wow. that’s something new.

        Palestinian Arabs has denied to have “Palestine” in 1947.

        Reply to Comment
    8. Giora Me'ir

      And as to Iran, he continues to parrot the Israeli line that military action should be on the table. Yet he has failed to set forth why it is in the UNITED STATES interest to prevent a nuclear Iran, and use military force as a means of so doing. Particularly since he avoids all discussion of North Korea, which is clearly within the U.S. national interest.

      John Juids has a good columm on this and the I/P question:

      http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112738/obama-israel-speech-two-state-solution-still-unlikely

      Reply to Comment
      • berl

        Giora, in the article that u suggested is written: “Mahmoud Abbas has not proven to be the kind of strong political leader that could sell an agreement to his people”. Let me quote Shlomo Brom (INSS):

        “The existence of a Palestinian partner for the political process and for a stable security situation is not an independent variable that is not contingent on Israel. The partner must be built. In recent years, Israel has adopted a policy of weakening its Palestinian partner, even in public statements by figures such as the former Foreign Minister Lieberman. It is difficult for Israel to complain now about the crisis with the Palestinian Authority and about the consequences for Israel of the weakening of the Palestinian leadership when Israel itself has contributed to it”.

        Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        >Yet he has failed to set forth why it is in the UNITED STATES interest to prevent a nuclear Iran, and use military force as a means of so doing.

        Are you the man on the moon?

        USA is currently at the state of semi-cold war with Iran, meaning that it is not in the interest of USA to have yet another nuclear-capable adversary while it is in the best interests of Iran to develop nuclear bomb.

        In modern world it guarantees practical immunity, you see.

        Reply to Comment
        • Giora Me'ir

          Iran has neither threatened, nor has the capability, to attack the US. That the US has bad relations with Iran–stemming from the overthrow of Mossadegh and the reinstatement of the Shah–does not mean that either country wants to attack the other.

          Meanwhile, North Korea has threatened to attack the US with nuclear weapons, and may be developing the capability. Yet, comparing the attention it has received to Iran, is like comparing a mouse to an elephant. The difference? Proximity to Israel.

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >Iran has neither threatened nor has the capability, to attack the US.

            Iran has not threatened to attack the USA because it has no capability.

            >That the US has bad relations with Iran–stemming from the overthrow of Mossadegh and the reinstatement of the Shah–does not mean that either country wants to attack the other.

            Which does not mean that Iran should be allowed to obtain a nuclear device.

            >Meanwhile, North Korea has threatened to attack the US with nuclear weapons, and may be developing the capability.

            May be???!!!
            You definitely had stayed on the moon for quite a while.
            On 12 February 2013, North Korean state media announced it had conducted an underground nuclear test, its third in seven years.
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_North_Korean_nuclear_test

            >Yet, comparing the attention it has received to Iran, is like comparing a mouse to an elephant. The difference? Proximity to Israel.

            The difference is that:
            1 – Korea already has nuke, while Iran still does not.
            2 – Economical situation in Korea is catastrophic, unlike Iran
            3 – China is somewhat calming down the situation. Who can calm down Iran?

            Dude, you don’t know shit. Learn something.

            Reply to Comment
          • Giora Me'ir

            Capability is the ability to deliver the device, brainiac. NK doesn’t’ have the ability yet, but is working on it. But Americans needn’t fret. Because Israel is not involved they have nothing to worry about.

            While the NK regime is nuts, Iran, however detestable it’s theocracy, is not. Moreover, it has not attacked it’s neighbors the way NK has.

            Military force by the US against Iran is no more necessary than military force would have been against Pakistan to prevent it from getting the bomb. This a matter of IsrAel’s national interest, not the US’s. Obama needs to stop responding to Netanyahu’s bluster. If Israel wants to use force, let it. Then let it deal with the consequences, without any help from the US.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            This whole post is a chunk of nonsense which can’t be answered.

            p.s. N. Korea is already perfectly capable to deliver the device to S. Korea or to Japan.

            Reply to Comment
          • Leen

            Well, North Korea has nuclear bombs, and has threatened the US to use them in the last couple of days. Also they attacked South Korea’s cyber system.

            Why isn’t the US doing anything about it? Seriously, they are obsessed over a country that doesn’t even have nuclear weapons, yet stay silent over a country that has some and threatened the US.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >Why isn’t the US doing anything about it?

            You mean, why the Secretary of the State does not send you weekly reports?

            >Seriously, they are obsessed over a country that doesn’t even have nuclear weapons, yet stay silent over a country that has some and threatened the US.

            And again, for the brightest:

            “USA is currently at the state of semi-cold war with Iran, meaning that it is not in the interest of USA to have yet another nuclear-capable adversary while it is in the best interests of Iran to develop nuclear bomb.”

            Reply to Comment
    9. Berl

      Obama visited only the places connected to the sufferance and the history of 1 of the 2 sides. In the speech, he quoted Ariel Sharon giving a wonderful assist to the settlers (their selective use of religion) and their idea that it is them that have to make concession of what is theirs. Obama supported the very controversial request of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, he spoke often in hebrew without mentioning one word of arabic, he mentioned many times the historical rights of Israel while he Never mentioned the historical rights and roots of the Pals. He just mentioned the right of the Pals to have a decent life and to self-determinate their future. Can somebody please open the eyes of most of of our dream-oriented analysts?

      Reply to Comment
      • The dream, Berl, is that One State is inevitable.

        Reply to Comment
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