U.S. President Barack Obama taught us all during his speech on Thursday at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem how to touch the hearts of every last young person in a tightly packed room of Israeli students. His visit to the Holy Land showed Israelis his strong rhetorical abilities. Observers from across the political spectrum were pleased by his declarations. Everyone walked away with the quotations that they wanted.
The president’s visit to Israel could have been titled “Obama in Wonderland.”
During the first half of the U.S. president’s speech on Thursday (the sugar-coated part), Obama came off as a member of the Likud party. He promised that Iran wouldn’t go nuclear, and that “you”—which is to say, Israelis—“are not alone.” He said that last part in Hebrew. Obama spoke at length about the security issues that every Israeli faces. He called to mind Osher Twito, the boy whom Obama met in Sderot, and didn’t forget to mention the five Israelis who were killed in the bus bombing in Bulgaria last summer. He disregarded the legion of commentators who worship him and who prophesied that he would put pressure on Israel, dictate Israel’s agenda and impose a deadline on the Jewish state. Actually, Obama didn’t even mention a freeze of Israeli construction beyond the Green Line. For Israelis, it was like a dream.
And then came the second half of the speech (the bitter pill), in which the U.S. president suddenly became a Peace Now activist, his true form. Deploying the same charm and gushing congeniality, and with equally polished rhetorical skill, Obama explained to Israelis (albeit with far fewer Hebrew interpolations) that peace is possible.
“It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished,” he said. It is forbidden to prevent Palestinians from tending their lands or to prevent the freedom of movement for students in the West Bank, he proclaimed, and you cannot expel Palestinians from their homes. “Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer,” the president declared.
After having cast his vote for Likud, he reached back into the ballot box, pulled out his envelope, and slipped in a Meretz (Israel’s left-wing party) card as well. Again, it was like a dream—this time a bad one. It wasn’t so much his rhetoric as it was his sharp political U-turn.
Obama came to Israel to charm Israelis, and he succeeded. He chose to speak directly to young people so they would help new U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry revitalize upcoming peace talks. Obama expects Israel’s young people to impel their government to make concessions. What he may not understand is that these same young people elected this very government, which believes in the equal burden, in all of its manifestations. Obama spoke openly about two states for two people, one of which is Jewish. The Palestinian Authority must also come to terms with this fact.
You can’t say Israelis were unimpressed by the world’s No. 1 citizen. But it isn’t yet known whether Obama can be added to the ranks of presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who, during their presidencies, oversaw the implementation of lasting peace treaties. Or, perhaps, Israelis will simply remember Obama for his kingly speech at the convention center in Jerusalem, one that, down the road, will be added to his growing list of lofty orations.
Boaz Bismuth is a columnist and correspondent for Israel Hayom, whose English-language content is distributed in the U.S. exclusively by JNS.org.