Obama at the UN: Rhetoric and Reality

On the long list of persistent problems preventing peace from prevailing, it is doubtful that “posturing” and “petty politics” are close to the top. And “turbulence” seems to have been added to the list simply to match “terror.” Terror was the key word -- but terror cannot be overcome simply by resolving not to let it “stand in the way.”

That was particularly true given the fact (unmentioned by Obama) that a terrorist group controlled half the putative Palestinian state, committed to eternal “turbulence” for Israel; and the further fact (likewise unmentioned) that the Ramallah regime was unelected, headed by a “president” whose term had expired nearly two years before, unable to set foot in the other half of his putative state, and who had already rejected the offer of a Palestinian state on all of Gaza and the West Bank (after swaps) with a capital in the Arab portion of Jerusalem, back when the Palestinian “president” was still in office.

The speech was neither brilliant nor a masterful analysis of the problem, but Obama did suggest the problem could be solved in a year. A year later, nothing had changed, but the Palestinians were seeking UN recognition of a state, citing Obama’s 2010 speech for the inspiration to “come back here next year” to welcome a Palestinian state.

This year, instead of relying on alliteration, Obama relied on repetition:

[L]et us remember: Peace is hard. Peace is hard. …

One year ago, I stood at this podium and I called for an independent Palestine. I believed then, and I believe now, that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said is that a genuine peace can only be realized between the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves. …

And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades.

Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations -- if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. … Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians -- not us –- who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them. … There are no shortcuts.  [Emphasis added].

He said peace is hard three times; twice reminded his audience (whom he assured last year that peace could be only a year away) that there are no short cuts; and noted that the conflict has endured for decades. The speech was effectively a confession that the problem is more difficult than simply not letting terror, or turbulence, or posturing, or petty politics stand in the way.

For Israel, Obama had some excellent things to say, just as he had in 2008. In Jeffrey Goldberg’s view, it was an impassioned pro-Israel speech that could not have been better. It asserted America’s unshakable friendship with Israel and a commitment to its security, called attention to the undeniable fact of the repeated wars against Israel, and referred to the Jewish people’s “burden of centuries of exile, persecution, and the fresh memory of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they were.”

The reference to “exile” was significant, because it implicitly recognizes that the real “right of return” belongs to the Jews. But Obama had nothing to say about the fact that the Palestinians -- terrorist and peace-partner alike -- insist not only on a state for themselves, but a specious “right of return” to Israel as well, and will not accept a Palestinian state if the price is the recognition of a Jewish one within defensible borders.

Goldberg noted his “clear impression, based on some actual reporting,” that the genesis of Obama’s speech was that he and his administration were “particularly pissed-off” about UN hypocrisy on Israel and angry at the disrespect shown them by Mahmoud Abbas. It was thus “Abbas's turn to feel Obama's wrath today” and “Netanyahu was off the hot seat for the moment.” The key words are “today” and “for the moment.”

In other words, the speech reflected petulance at the Palestinians and/or a pivot toward presidential politics for the coming year, but it was not a brilliant or masterful analysis of the problem. As with most Obama speeches, it addressed the problem du jour, but may have been good for that jour only.