It may come as a shock to readers that I rather liked Barack Obama’s speech to an audience of Israeli students at the Israel Convention Center in Jerusalem Thursday.
In a talk that lasted nearly an hour (I read it here), the president touched many familiar bases, praising Israeli democracy, technology, and entrepreneurship, and even paying homage to Zionism in a way that few expect of him. He also repeated, as he does often now, that Israeli security is paramount to the U.S. (We shall see on that one.)
But the overwhelming message of the speech, its theme, was an importuning of young Israelis to make sacrifices for peace. Those sacrifices were, not surprisingly, unspecified, other than the usual shibboleths about settlement building being unhelpful. Nevertheless, according to The Algemeiner, the speech was enthusiastically received.
There was only one problem: it was delivered to the wrong audience.
Israeli students are almost all ready to make some sort of compromise for peace. Indeed if peace were really a prospect, I would bet most of them would be fairly weeping for joy.
The trouble is — they don’t have anyone to make peace with. On the Palestinian side, nobody is home. To paraphrase and extend Gertrude Stein, there is less than there, there. Hamas is a collection of religious sociopaths and the Palestinian Authority is composed of corrupt cowards who were unwilling to negotiate even after the supposedly bellicose Netanyahu suspended settlement building a couple of years ago.
Still, the Israeli students had to listen to this graph from Obama:
But 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.
That “walk a mile in their shoes” talk is more than a little condescending. Most young Israelis I would wager have plenty of empathy for the Palestinians. The problem is the other way around. Few Palestinians have demonstrated much empathy of any sort toward Israelis. (Watch their television shows.)
Now part of this of course is that Israelis are the Goliaths of the moment (though only of the moment). And few have sympathy for Goliath, even for a Goliath surrounded by hundreds of millions of enemies occupying lands hundreds of times greater than his. And another part is shame and envy. Israel is a rapidly advancing modern state, and the Arab world in general has been a retrograde shambles for generations, successful (and then superficially) only in regions blessed with natural resources.
One wonders what it would have been like if Obama had delivered a speech like this to Palestinian students, complimenting them but still telling them directly to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and work with the Israelis to build mutual prosperity.
Would the speech have been met with the same resounding applause and standing ovations reported by The Algemeiner?
Not only do I suspect not, I would have been shocked to see it.
Obama sweet-talked the Israelis, but not in the way he sweet-talked the Arab world in the 2009 Cairo speech. There were no apologies to Israel and not likely to be any. What went on behind closed doors with Netanyahu and others may have had a distinctly different tone. Who knows?
But in all, it could have been worse. My prediction: Obama’s trip to the Holy Land will be virtually forgotten within days, even before the Cypriot banks open on Monday. Then… fuhgedaboutdid.