Obama speaks plainly in Israel about Palestinians

President Obama said in a speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center yesterday that President Bashir of Syria “must go” and that “all options are on the table” to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.  He also said that the Palestinian people have as much right as the Israelis to be “a free people in their own land.”  The latter is something that needed to be said by a President of the United States.

Like most of Barack Obama’s speeches, his talk in Jerusalem was carefully balanced and can be taken in different ways by different people.  It is clear that he does not intend to try to force the Israeli government to change its policies by reducing military aid or any other form of pressure.  But words do mean something.  They widen the range of what is acceptable to discuss.

Here are some excerpts from the talk.

President Obama in Israel

President Obama in Israel

I’ve made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists. The world is watching. We will hold you accountable. (Cheers, applause.)

The Syrian people have the right to be freed from the grip of a dictator who would rather kill his own people than relinquish power.

(Cheers, applause.)  Assad must go so that Syria’s future can begin, because true stability in Syria depends upon establishing a government that is responsible to its people, one that protects all communities within its borders, while making peace with countries beyond them.

He went on to say that he hoped that sanctions and negotiations with Iran would succeed, but … …

Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained — (applause) — and as president, I’ve said all options are on the table for achieving our objectives.  America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

He said that Israel has the right to be free of terrorist attacks.  He said he favors negotiations between the Israeli government and Palestinian leaders for a two-state solution, without intervention by the United Nations or other third parties, but … …

It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own — (cheers, applause) — living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements, not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day.  It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. (Applause.)  It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank — (applause) — or displace Palestinian families from their homes.

Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer.  (Cheers, applause.)  Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land. (Applause.)

But I — I’m going off script here for a second, but before I — before I came here, I — I met with a — a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22. And talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons.

I honestly believe that if — if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, I want these kids to succeed. (Applause.)  I want them to prosper.  I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do. (Applause.)  I believe that’s what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them. (Cheers, applause.)  I believe that. (Cheers, applause.)

It’s true that the statements about Syria and Iran are action items, while the statement about a Palestinian state is only an exhortation.  But I don’t think that negates the value of his speech.  Progress has to begin somewhere.  Changes in policy begin with changes of attitude.

Click on New York Times transcript or The Guardian transcript for President Obama’s full speech.

Juan Cole, professor of Middle East history at Michigan State university, thought President Obama’s speech was too timid and will have little effect.  Click on Israeli Right: Obama Undermined Netanyahu, Endangered Israel With His Call for Palestinian State for Cole’s full comment.

Gregg Carlstrom, the correspondent for Al Jazeera English, also was unimpressed with President Obama’s speech.  He noted that Obama called upon the Palestinian Authority to give up its demand for a halt to new Jewish settlements on the West Bank as a condition for negotiations.  Click on Obama urges Israel-Palestinian peace talks for his full report.

Peter Beinart, writing for the web newspaper The Daily Beast, said Obama’s speech was full of inaccuracies, but still significant because it challenged the “core narrative” that “the Jews are the world’s permanent victims, licensed by their fears to worry only about themselves.  Click on Obama to Israelis: ‘The World Can Change’ to read his full article.

Jonathan Chait of New York magazine said the President’s speech was effective because he first showed empathy for the Israelis, then called upon them to show empathy for the Palestinians.  One of Barack Obama’s great strengths is his ability to see things from the perspectives of others.  Click on Obama’s Empathic Israel Speech for his full article.

Andrew Sullivan rightly took President Obama to task for saying that the U.S.-Israel alliance is “eternal.”  Click on Barack Obama vs George Washington and Barack Obama vs. George Washington, Ctd to read his comments.

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