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Obama's speech: The view from the crowd

The crowd in Jerusalem Thursday was a stark reminder that many Israelis simply do not live and breathe politics, the conflict, or other issues that are breathing down Obama’s neck. But the real question was posed by one youngster who on the bus ride back to Tel Aviv kept shaking his head, saying, “I wonder what will come of it.”

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in Jerusalem (YouTube screenshot)

President Obama gave a master speech at the convention center in Jerusalem Thursday night. Gone was the stammering, glancing-around insecurity he showed in his interview with Israeli Channel 2 prior to the visit, or the cautious pauses on display in his press conference on the first day of the trip.

The president seemed to have branded the event in his mind on one hand as a young person’s moment, wearing his flowing, casual style like a hip jacket – he jogged onto the stage as if stumping in Ohio, practically catching the audience by surprise; on the other hand, his speech seemed designed to plant tiny seeds of big ideas, through the gravitas and sensitivity of his words.

He gave the old standard of America being Israel’s best friend; he joked and he played the “sahbak” – chummy pal – and cracked out some strategically placed words in Hebrew. The reassurance factor could not have been stronger, and when it reached its peak, he turned to the “but.” There was no more caring way to say it: as a friend, tough things need to be said sometimes. He pre-empted rejection by acknowledging that not everyone would like what he had to say and then spent substantial moments humanizing Palestinians (if this sounds colonialist and patronizing to Palestinians, the sad truth is that Israeli society needs it). He described their rights and the constraints on those rights, through daily tribulations. For a moment there, I felt he was bringing the occupation to the Jerusalem convention center. There is much more that could have been said but for an Israeli mainstream audience in the heart of Jerusalem, it was as bold as a U.S. president could be expected to provide.

Did the audience hear it? Did they want to hear it?

The students who gathered in uncharacteristically patient crowds waiting in line to pass through security were truly fresh-faced. Although we know it from the ballot boxes, a crowd like this was a stark reminder that many Israelis simply do not live and breathe politics, the conflict, or other issues that are breathing down Obama’s neck. Diana, a 25-year old student about to graduate from the Technion University in Haifa, said she was there mainly because she thought it would be an exciting way to end her studies – but she expected him to talk about “the usual things.” She and her friend Gal are both students of material sciences and engineering. Gal said he was most interested in hearing what was important for Obama, rather than holding any of his own expectations.

A trio of Druze university students waiting in the lobby bubbled with excitement. One of them Iman, said he had no idea what Obama might say, but assumed he would touch on “important things,” like U.S.-Israel cooperation, maybe the peace process, maybe Israel’s role in the Middle East. Evelyn, from Ben Gurion University, said that her main expectation was simply to be there for the “historic event,” by which, it turned out, she meant the strengthening of the Israel-U.S. alliance. She saw Obama as an “inspirational man” who could emphasize the need for education, the need to improve relations between countries, and spread peace, “because that’s what Barack Obama is about.”

I wondered what they were thinking during the speech. I wondered if they were among those who cheered and clapped when Obama talked about how Israel will always exist, and that as long as America exists, “You are not alone” (I will not attempt to reproduce his strained Hebrew, but it elicited thrills from the audience every time).

Or were they among those showering huge applause and ovations when the president served up his “tough talk?” The crowd clapped at length and with energy when he spoke of the need to ensure Israel’s future by establishing an “independent and viable Palestine.” Perhaps the most emotional moment was when he went “off-script” to talk about meeting with Palestinian youngsters, and how sure he was that Israeli parents, too, would want the same things for them that they do for their own children. He told the audience to put themselves in the Palestinians’ shoes and that, I can say with some confidence, is almost never done.

It was not a given, but it was pleasantly surprising to feel that the audience gave rousing, emotional applause at these moments. They felt louder and more excited than the clapping on cue for the regular messaging. The ovations sounded like those of people who not only agreed, but finally felt that the most important person in the world had vindicated their ideas.

After the speech, I didn’t find the same students whom I spoke with earlier, but speaking to others, the words “inspiration” and “impressive” came up frequently. It is easy to be cynical; we might have wanted him to push the envelope much harder on the conflict. But the 28-year old student I spoke to afterwards, who served for six years in the Israeli Air Force, and said he moved from right, to center-“ish” and maybe a bit more left, and was thinking hard about Obama’s words.

But the real question was best articulated by another youngster, a 23-year old student named Eran in his first year of political science and economics at Hebrew University. He had watched the speech on television, and lauded the fact that the president put the real issues on the table. On the long bus ride back to Tel Aviv, however, he kept shaking his head and gazing out the window, saying, “I wonder what will come of it.”

Obama’s speech: Israel’s Left and Right can be happy, and the occupation is here to stay
Obama compares Israeli occupation to racial discrimination in U.S.
An open letter to Barack Obama: You are welcome in Bethlehem

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    1. Kiwi

      Yea it is a good thing to say such things to Israelis. But who is saying things to Palestinians to make them feel the concerns of Israelis?

      Peace can only be made when both sides want it. Not when one side is made to feel guilty while the other side is erroneously allowed to feel self righteous.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gearoid

        Who says those things to Palestinians?

        The Israelis, Americans, Europeans of all stripes, the UN, and pretty much everyone except the Arab states themselves, who probably say it in private.

        They get reminded of the “legitimacy” of Israeli concerns pretty much constantly. They barely have the power to even talk back.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kiwi

          Yet they don’t seem to hear.

          One has to wonder what would happen if the Palestinians would conduct a referendum about the right of return demand and recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. As well as some compromise about the settlements like land swaps.

          And they would conditionally comply with at least some of Israel’s demands stating what they would want in return.

          In other words, if Israel would be willing to meet their demands, they would meet Israel’s demands.

          I think such an initiative would bring about a breakthrough. A paradigm shift.

          Reply to Comment
          • The “right of return” is a nationalist identity card. It keeps those in camps outside Palestinian areas conceptually in the nation. If you want to alter that identity card, provide an alternative. I think viable soverignty with signs of autonomous economic growth would dampen talk of the right of return.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kiwi

            You don’t seem to understand, Greg. The right of return is a non starter as far as Israel is concerned. If the Palestinians won’t give up that demand, there is no solution and no end to the occupation. Israel will not agree to national suicide.

            Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            Then it’s Israel that vetoes the peace. Every time.

            Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            You are a funny man Aristeides.

            So Israel has two choices according to you?

            1. Commit national suicide.

            2. Or face the accusation that it is the one vetoing the peace deal.

            Is that what you are saying? You are joking of course, aren’t you?

            Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            Shmuel – not joking a bit. It’s the Israelis who are always saying “Israel will not agree to X.” So it’s Israel that’s holding and playing the veto card. Simple as that.

            As to “national suicide,” that’s the joke. Every repressive regime in history has wailed that change means suicide and death for their sacred way of life.

            Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            No Aristeides, I repeat, you are joking. Are you saying that a country that had been under attack from it’s neighbours ever since it’s existence, Israel, can afford to let in 5 million of it’s beligerent neighbours, Arabs, who were raised from childhood with the idea of erasing Israel? What planet are you from Aristeides?

            As for your claim that Israel was the one that vetoed every offer, you are just lying through your teeth.

            – In 1947 Israel accepted the two state solution, UN resolution 181, the Arabs did not.

            – After the 1967 war, Israel offered to return most of the West Bank in exchange for peace. The response from the Arab League was the three ‘NOs’ of Khartoum, google it.

            – In 2000, Israel offered to give up most of the West Bank with some land swaps. The response was the second Intifada.

            – In 2001, in Taba, Israel improved the offer. Arafat just walked away.

            – In 2008, Condi Rice could not believe her ears when instead of accepting Olmert’s offer, Abbas started quibbling about the right of return and dilly dallied till Olmert lost office several months later.

            Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            Try again, Shmuel. Start with reading before you open your canned racist rant.

            Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            Read what? Your racist nonsense?

            You don’t even know what you are parroting yourself. There is only one consistent thing in what you say; hatred of Israel.

            Reply to Comment
          • andrew r

            “Israel will not agree to national suicide.”

            Of course the Palestinians are today blamed for starting the conflict because during the British Mandate -era they didn’t commit national suicide by permitting an unchecked number of immigrants or partition of the country so said immigrants would have political sovereignty over much of the land.

            I don’t have any idea what it will take, but clearly peace will not arrive on anything Israel agrees to. Zionism can’t be reasoned with.

            Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            “Of course the Palestinians are today blamed for starting the conflict because during the British Mandate -era they didn’t commit national suicide by permitting an unchecked number of immigrants or partition of the country so said immigrants would have political sovereignty over much of the land.”

            Are you saying that the two state solution was/is national suicide?

            I certainly did not not say that. I said, agreeing to the right of return would be a national suicide.

            In 1947, the Palestinian Arabs were offered their own state. Instead of accepting their state, they attacked the Jewish state. That’s how they committed national suicide.

            Reply to Comment
          • andrew r

            This is a self-contradiction right here. A right of return would be national suicide for Israel, so in 1947 when the UN-proposed Jewish state had a 45% Arab population, there could not have been a Jewish state to attack. According to your own criteria a Jewish state did not exist until the Zionist armed groups racially cleansed Palestine.

            Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            Huh Andrew? How do you arrive at that conclusion? Here is the chronology of what happened.

            1. Prior to the late 1800s, a small number of Jews lived in Palestine alongside a larger Arab population.

            2. The land was sparsely populated. How do I know? Because even today there are about 10 million people between the river and the sea. And there is room for more people. In the late 1800s, how many people lived in Palestine? Less than a million. A lot less than a million.

            3. From the late 1800s, Jews started returning to their ancestral homelands and buy lands.

            4. By 1947, there were 600,000 Jews and about 1.2 million Arabs in Palestine.

            5. The UN voted to partition the land and to create two states. One Arab one Jewish.

            6. The Jews accepted the UN resolution (181). The Arabs did not. They rioted, attacked the Jewish population and killed many.

            7. The Jews defended themselves and counter attacked. They too killed many Arabs.

            But you know all that Andrew. For your own reasons you delight in making me repeat the some thing over and over again. Sigh, never mind, I’ll keep on repeating it as often as you want me to. You boring little man.

            Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            … and yes, had the Palestinian Arabs accepted the two state solution in 1947, the Jewish state would have had 45% Arab population. Over time, the proportion of Jews as compared to the Arab population would have increased because:

            1. Additional Jewish immigration.

            2. Because many Arabs (probably not all) would have accepted significant monetary compensation in return for migrating to the Arab state.

            That is why at that time, the Jews were willing to compromise. For the sake of avoiding more bloodshed and war.

            But today, after 100 years of hatred, bloodshed and war caused largely by Arab intransigence and unwillingness to compromise. Israel will not turn the clock back just to please you progressives. No, pleasing you guys is not worth national suicide. Especially since granting the right of return today would result in the return of up to 5 million Arabs. Most of whom never lived in Palestine but were raised to hate Israel. No sane people would agree to accepting that many people who were raised on the idea of eradicating the Jewish state.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Palestinian

      I thought the article was about Rabee’ Eid ,that YouTube screenshot was taken when Obama made fun of Rabee’ and called him “a heckler” smiling like an idiot claiming “thats part of the lively debate that Israelis have” ,that was before Rabee’ was taken out and handcuffed for interrupting that puppet .

      Reply to Comment
      • sh

        I thought Obama handled that ok. What is definitely not ok is to have handcuffed Rabeea afterwards. If heckling were a crime, most of the Knesset would be in handcuffs.

        Reply to Comment
    3. sh

      You know, I never thought of the possibility that many if not most were there just for the thrill. And it should have been obvious.

      Reply to Comment
    4. annie

      thank you so much dahlia, very much appreciated.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Gal

      Great words Dahlia. Let’s wait and see.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Yonathan

      Why all writers and columnists in 972mag always have to be so negative?
      In a day like today to just look for the negative amount to an obsession. Do all of you suffer from a collective depression? Is life in Israel that dark?

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        It is for the fringe left which are so certain that they must be right but for whom humanity as a whole and Israelis in particular are persistent disappointments.

        Reply to Comment
    7. ‘Perhaps the most emotional moment was when he went “off-script” to talk about meeting with Palestinian youngsters, and how sure he was that Israeli parents, too, would want the same things for them that they do for their own children. He told the audience to put themselves in the Palestinians’ shoes and that, I can say with some confidence, is almost never done.’ : These youth are maturing post security through occupation. Obama phrased things as a positive sum, not zero sum, game, where both can do better. You say these things to the young because they, infuriatingly, may not be what their collective parents were. The same presentational strategy was used in the 08 election.

      I interpret Obama’s stance to be one of recognizing that as the present, newly minited, Israeli government seems unlikely to move, prepare the ground for after these are gone. Of course, Obama will be gone by then, too.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Hi Dahlia-my question is similar to the first commenter. I don’t know what is said behind closed doors (obviously) but while I loved the speech, I am also concerned that unless a similar public speech/message is given publicly to the Palestinians, this will not bear fruit. There have been several of these speeches to the Israelis and Jews over the years. Why do you think Obama is not speaking in the same way to the other side? Thank you.

      Reply to Comment
      • Benji, my response is similar to Berl’s. I would love for him to speak in the “same way” to the other side: to embrace their language, learn their jokes, hit on all their symbolic identity markers, reassure them that they have no better friend, visit the sites marking their trauma, and only then tell them what they must concede for the sake of peace. As it is, not a single word of his Jm speech was lost on the Palestinians and all the concessions they will be asked to make were inherent in there, and broadcast around the world. So when you ask why he was not giving similar speeches to them – I can only agree, but i guess we have different aspects in mind.

        Reply to Comment
    9. AYLA

      Thank you, Dahlia, for this attuned and uncynical response. There are far too many smart, motivated people wasting their anti-occupation energy with cynicism that actually hurts as much as apathy, if not more. It’s also really boring. What will come of it, indeed. Nothing, if we’re cynical.

      Reply to Comment
      • Zephon


        Statistics collected from sociological data state that the pessimists and cynics live longer, stable, and more happier lives than the optimistic individual.

        Definition of maladjusted: poorly or inadequately adjusted; specifically : lacking harmony with one’s environment from failure to adjust one’s desires to the conditions of one’s life

        Martin Luther King Jr. “Modern psychology has a word…”maladjusted.” Certainly, we all want to avoid the maladjusted life. In order to have real adjustment within our personalities, we all want the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurosis, schizophrenic personalities.

        But I say to you, my friends, as I move to my conclusion, there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good-will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination.

        I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry.

        I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.”

        To quote MLK – again

        “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted. In other words, I’m about convinced now that there is need for a new organization in our world. The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment–men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos. Who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

        I’m perfectly settled in my maladjusted and cynical ways.

        Reply to Comment
        • Arieh

          ” I am proud to be maladjusted”

          Zephon, I think you even confused yourself. Have you forgot to take your medications?

          Now tell me please, as a candidate for the Darwin Awards, how do you expect to have a long life?

          Reply to Comment
        • AYLA

          Martin Luther King was nothing if not visionary and uncynical, Zephon.

          Reply to Comment
        • AYLA

          Zephon–MLK was nothing if not visionary and uncynical. I think you’re confusing cynicism with pessimism and visionary with optimistic. If you listen to Obama’s speech, you’ll hear him say that he wouldn’t say that peace is likely. Just possible. If you think that’s overly optimistic, well. Why waste your energy in this arena?

          Reply to Comment
    10. rowan

      intelligent words as always Dahlia. People ask what did he say to the palestinians…there only one thing to say..do not despair …because despair is bad for them and bad for israelis…despair will provoke mindless rage and suicidal revenge…do not despair

      Reply to Comment
    11. berl

      Did the author understood the speech as well as Obama’s symbolical acts?
      He visited only the place 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
      • Shmuel

        I for one would have preferred Obama to drop all his sugar coated BS and reassurances to us and instead to tell the Palestinian Arabs too what is expected of them in order to bring about the two state solution. Things like,

        1. Give up the so called right of return.

        2. That in order for their state to be recognised as the ethnically pure Arab Muslim state, they too must recognise Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. A state which will continue to have a significant Arab minority.

        3. That the Palestinians must be willing to compromise on the settlements with land swaps.

        As it is, the outcome of his speech tends to leave the Palestinian Arabs with the feeling that all they need to do is to sit back while Israel has to make very hard decisions. And if Israel does not make those decisions, the Palestinian Arabs can just point the finger and blame Israel.

        By the way, everyone seems to ignore Hamas. What compromise has Hamas promised for peace? The method of execution of Israel’s Jewish population? Ignoring Hamas will not make them go away.

        Reply to Comment
        • aristeides

          Typical Zionist drivel. Obama should tell the Palestinians to roll over and give up every hope and aspiration.

          Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            Typical “progressive” drivel. If Obama expects Israel to roll over for the sake of “peace” (as if peace is feasible even with Fatah, let alone Hamas), then he should also expect the Palestinian Arabs to roll over for peace. Tit for tat, you see Aristeides?

            Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            The problem is that Obama has no intention of telling Israel what to give up for peace.

            Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            The problem is that you distort everyting that has happened and which is happening.

            Reply to Comment
          • tod

            shmuel alias trespasser, are you speaking about yourselves?

            Reply to Comment
          • Tzutzik

            No Tod, alias Aristeides, he is speaking of you.

            Reply to Comment
    12. sh

      Just for the record, during a bus conversation just now, the (Yemenite, family here from way before Israel was a state) driver said he had now totally changed his opinion about Obama. Before he had believed the papers (I stupidly didn’t ask which ones) and that he had come to the conclusion one must never believe them. And a lady (Iranian origin, lived in tents at first) said that she had liked him from the very beginning and prayed that the “kushi” – she was dark-skinned herself – would get the peace organized at last.

      Reply to Comment
    13. andrew r

      This is the last and only word on Obama’s speech:

      “The President of the US is the man in charge of coordinating maintaining the health of American economy, namely, the safety of these profits. So he came to the Middle East, which is the pivot area of these profits, and talked about peace. What did you expect that he talks about? Do you expect the chief officers of Big Tobacco to speak about cancer when they make public addresses? Do the expect the CEO of Apple to extol the virtues of working employees to the point of suicide? Naturally, the President spoke about peace. Peace is lovely.”


      Reply to Comment
      • Shmuel

        Nobody here objected to Obama talking about peace.

        Reply to Comment
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