U.S. President Barack Obama gave his long-awaited speech to the Israeli people Thursday night at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. The lengthy speech lasted nearly an hour and focused on issues of security, peace, and prosperity.
The president didn’t shy away from controversial issues, telling the audience, “the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.” This got a standing ovation from the crowd, before he said it was a goal that could be realized as Israel does “have a true partner in President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad.”
Obama struck a note of solidarity with Palestinian Arabs, asking Israelis to “Put yourself in their [the Palestinians’] 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.”
And he issued a challenge to Israelis to make peace, not only with the Palestinians but with neighboring countries as well: “There will be many voices that say this change is not possible. But remember this: Israel is the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world. Israel has the wisdom to see the world as it is, but also the courage to see the world as it should be.”
The speech was not without its light moments. To start, the president addressed the perceived feud between himself and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying, “any drama between me and my friend Bibi over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehederet.”
At one point President Obama was interrupted by a protestor. He stopped, waited for the audience member to quiet down, then said he “wouldn’t feel at home” if there hadn’t been at least one heckler.
The president made it clear that he understood some wouldn’t agree with his positions, but said that “the easiest thing for me to do would be to put this issue aside, and express unconditional support for whatever Israel decides to do. But I want you to know that I speak to you as a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future.”
President Obama also addressed security fears in the region. Of Hezbollah he said, “every country that values justice should call Hezbollah what it truly is – a terrorist organization.”
He demanded that “Assad must go so that Syria’s future can begin,” and reiterated that he has “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 these weapons to terrorists.”
The president also tried to ease concerns about his position towards Iran, telling the audience: “All of us have an interest in resolving this issue peacefully. Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained. As President, I have said to the world that all options are on the table for achieving our objectives.”
One of the moments that received the most applause was when the president voiced his support for Israel’s inalienable right to exist. “Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere,” he said.
President Obama’s speech wasn’t merely a chance for him to address regional concerns, but one in which he took the opportunity to express his admiration for the country.
“Israel has built a prosperous nation – through kibbutzeem that made the desert bloom, business that broadened the middle class, and innovators who reached new frontiers – from the smallest microchip to the orbits of space.
“Israel has established a thriving democracy – with a spirited civil society, proud political parties, a tireless free press, and a lively public debate – lively may even be an understatement,” he said.
He also touted the Jewish state’s financial prowess, saying that “If people want to see the future of the world economy, they should look at Tel Aviv” and again issued a challenge to conclude the speech: “Today, as we face the twilight of Israel’s founding generation, you – the young people of Israel – must now claim the future. It falls to you to write the next chapter in the story of this great nation.”