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March 28, 2013 3:35 am

Parsing Obama’s Speech

avatar by Jerold Auerbach

Screen shot of U.S. President Barack Obama speaking after receiving Medal of Distinction. Photo: Ynet.

Anyone inclined to fantasize about prospects for an Israeli- Palestinian agreement because President Obama inspired students with his Jerusalem speech might take a deep breath and remember recent history. Especially once popular Israeli journalist and TV commentator Ehud Ya’ari enthusiastically declared that Obama was “a new Clinton.”

Intended as laudatory, the Clinton comparison might better be taken as a cautionary warning. It is now almost twenty years since the famous handshake on the White House lawn with a beaming President Clinton embracing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat. A year later, Rabin and Arafat were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, while Clinton was widely praised as a noble peacemaker.

But within less than a decade the Oslo accord had unraveled. Israelis riding buses and dining in restaurants were blown up in hideous attacks by Palestinian suicide bombers. After Arafat launched the second intifada, more than seven hundred Israeli civilians were murdered in terrorist attacks.

Fast forward to Obama in Jerusalem. Rather than address the Knesset, where he could be heckled by Israeli law- makers duly skeptical of American presidents bearing olive branches, he chose the more welcoming audience of Israeli university students. Not, to be sure, from every university. Students from Israel’s newest academic institution, located in the flourishing settlement of Ariel, were not welcome.

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But in a sharp departure from his Cairo speech in 2009, when Obama relied on the Holocaust to validate Israeli claims to their homeland, he seemed to have learned that “next year in Jerusalem” expressed quite ancient yearnings. He cited “faith in God and the Torah,” “centuries of suffering and exile,” “a longing to return home” and “freedom in your own land” as the historic, religious and ideological underpinnings of Jewish statehood.

Then he addressed the generation of young Israelis who yearn for peace now. “Given the demographics west of the Jordan River,” he asserted, “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.”

That, however, is a false equation. Jews comprise two-thirds of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. There is no ticking demographic time bomb. With or without a Palestinian state, Israel will remain both Jewish and democratic. But given the dangers currently lurking on its borders with Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Egypt, the last thing it needs is a West Bank Palestinian state likely to be instantly gobbled up by Hamas or Hezbollah.

Obama implored Israelis to recognize “the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice.” Citing “the foreign army” that occupies “Palestinian” land (actually the Jewish biblical homeland); “settler violence” (invariably in response to Palestinian attacks); and the unfairness that “a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own” (only because her leaders, as Abba Eban memorably observed, have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace), he affirmed that “Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”

If that phrase sounds familiar, it should. In The Jewish State (1896), Theodor Herzl wrote: “We shall live at last as free men on our own soil.” Obama parroted the Palestinian inclination to frame their national aspirations in Zionist language.

Perhaps because Israelis (for good reason) expected little from Obama, they seemed enraptured by his speech. The headline in Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, proclaimed that “Israel is in Love.” An Israeli engineering student was delighted that “President Obama talked to me” and to students who merely want “to live our lives in peace and to prosper.” The president, a law student claimed, had infused young Israelis “with spirit and hope.” Another appreciative listener noted that his “inspiring idealistic vision” was “bravely related to the immorality of the continuing Israeli occupation.” A business student understood that the president “wanted us, the younger generation, to pressure our government in order to make peace with the Palestinians.”

“Political leaders,” Obama observed, “will never take risks if the people do not push them.” Netanyahu can be pushed. Elected prime minister in 1996 as a sharp critic of the Oslo accords, he capitulated to American pressure to expand their scope. He agreed to the confinement of Jews living in the ancient biblical city of Hebron to a tiny ghetto, with the power of the Israeli army to protect them severely limited. His abject apology (not coincidentally, just before Obama left Israel) to Turkish President Erdogen for the Mavi Marmara episode, when Israeli naval commandos were attacked at sea while enforcing the Gaza blockade, reveals his pliability under pressure.

Obama may have finally recognized the ancient and enduring attachment of the Jewish people to their biblical homeland. But his hostility to the Jews who live there was palpable. Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s new right-wing Cabinet minister, responded pointedly: “There is no occupation in one’s own land.” Settlement, after all, has always inspired Zionist dreams and defined Israeli reality.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author, most recently, of Against the Grain: A Historian’s Journey (Quid Pro Books, 2012)

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