I, along with other supporters of Israel, have for the past few years rightfully been critical of President Obama and his position on the Middle East, beginning with his disastrous Cairo speech and his misguided decision to combine a wooing of the Arab world with a decision to put U.S. pressure first and foremost on Israel. Particularly, Obama chose to make settlements the most important issue regarding the peace process.
The major change during his two days in Israel was a decisive shift in approach, which many of his ardent supporters have been loath to acknowledge. This shift was succinctly pointed out by veteran foreign affairs analyst Leslie Gelb:
In Israel, Obama went further than ever in trying to placate Bibi’s position. The president said that the issue of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, the hottest button for Palestinians, should not be dealt with in advance of negotiations, as the Palestinians demand, but should be placed on the table only after the negotiating groundwork has been set. Indeed, almost everything Obama has said on this trip backpedals on his earlier priority of freezing those settlements. This is a body blow to Abbas and his supporters that can be assuaged only by a real Washington push for negotiations, one that involves U.S. positions disliked by Bibi and bound to cause moaning among many Israelis.
If one puts this truth first, Obama’s speech the next day to leftist students may be seen as the other side of the coin. Roger L. Simon is not alone in responding favorably to Obama’s words. It was, as David Horovitz, editor of The Times of Israel perceptively points out, a “left-wing Zionist speech,” perhaps the most cogent statement of such a viewpoint that the Israeli public has heard since the old days of Habonim and Hashomer Hatzair, the two most important Zionist left-wing youth groups of the ’50s, ’6os, and Israel’s early period of labor Zionism.
Obama may indeed have stirred the hearts of the hand-picked leftist students who were present at the event, but garnering their wild applause is one thing; the hard reality of trying to make peace with the Palestinians, led by Abbas — not to speak of Hamas — is another. As Horovitz says, the problem is that Obama’s utopian vision “is hardly consensual”:
This speech was the “reset” of Obama’s personal relationship with Israel. It was the speech in which he showed his knowledge of Israel, quoting its religious texts and its political visionaries, recalling the suffering of exile, the yearning for the homeland. It was the speech in which he acknowledged the extent of the hostility tiny Israel has faced and continues to face in this region, the relentless series of wars it has been forced to fight for its survival.
He knew, he told the listening Israelis, that you live in a region in which many have rejected your very right to exist. He knew, he said, that the security of the Jewish people in Israel cannot be taken for granted. He knew Israel had seized opportunities for peace with Egypt and Jordan under Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, and tried hard to make peace with the Palestinians, including under Ehud Olmert at Annapolis. He knew that the 2000 Lebanon pullout and the 2005 Gaza withdrawal had been met with rocket fire, and that “the hand of friendship” had too often been met with rejectionism and terror.
Having set this up to woo Israelis, the president then moved on to tell them to keep working for the Palestinian state that would be in the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians, and which he argued the Palestinians deserved as a matter of justice.
And that is the rub.