What Obama Didn't Say: Why Peace Requires More than Israeli Willpower

I don’t have big problems with what President Barack Obama said in his lecture to Israeli students. He said that peace is good, that peace is good for Israel, that peace is possible, and that people should work for peace and conciliation.

All fine sentiments. The students applauded wildly because they didn't think he was attacking Israel but voicing the sentiments they already hold, indeed that most Israelis and their leaders have held for decades. The only problem is that Obama doesn't seem to understand this fact.

Young people tend to think that the world is completely changeable. They look at current reality and see foolishness and suffering and contradictions in it. They think it possible to re-imagine the world.

Of course, change is often desirable, as long as it is a change for the better, and possible. Many things have happened — the fall of the regime in Egypt; the Syrian civil war, etc. — that were previously thought improbable.

And yet there are reasons why things are as they are. What you want to see happen must be a realistic goal or else it can turn out very badly. In 1979 -- I remember this vividly -- the idea seemed undeniable to most people that the fall of Iran's shah had to produce a better outcome. That theme of revolution welcomed and then becoming a bloodbath goes back as far as the French Revolution.

Obama said:

But for the moment, put aside the plans and the process. I ask you, instead, to think about what can be done to build trust between people.

This is not a new idea. It is something Israelis have been thinking about and working on for decades and especially during the last twenty years. Israel’s declaration of independence, May 14, 1948,  declared:

We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.

During the “peace process” era of the 1990s, Israelis worked strenuously to build such bridges. I taught a course on political analysis at a Palestinian university (Yasir Arafat’s niece was one of my students) and knew that doing so was at some risk to my life. When the university's public report came out afterward, I was the only person on the teaching staff not identified by country. They could or would not admit that they had a professor from Israel. An Israeli doctor volunteering to help heal people in the Gaza Strip fared worse. He was axed to death.