Obama appeal to Israeli public means risk

March 22, 2013 - 5:29 PM
APTOPIX US Obama Mideast Israel

President Barack Obama, left, listens to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their visit to the Children's Memorial at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Israel, Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

JERUSALEM (AP) — In a landmark speech to young Israelis this week, the visiting U.S. President Barack Obama delivered an unorthodox appeal couched behind warm words of affinity for their country: Urge your leaders to change their ways and take bold new steps to reach peace with the Palestinians.

The message, potentially risking the ire of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, marked a gamble by the U.S. leader as he searches for ways to restart long-stalled Mideast peace efforts. With no breakthroughs coming out of the visit on the Palestinian front, Obama must now hope that the power of the presidency, combined with the goodwill he accumulated during the 48-hour visit, can persuade a still-skeptical Israeli leadership to abandon some deeply entrenched views and get negotiations moving again.

After a first term plagued by repeated run-ins with Netanyahu and perceptions among Israelis that he was cool to their cause and perhaps even hostile to their prime minister, Obama certainly succeeded in his goal of resetting the relationship. He was treated like a rock star in meetings with Israeli leaders and everyday people, and his every moment was followed by a fawning Israeli media.

"Israel is in Love," Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest daily, wrote in a headline Friday.

Obama and Netanyahu, who have appeared uncomfortable together in the past, smiled, joked and exchanged pleasant small talk throughout the visit, with much of the conversation caught on live microphones permitted to join them. Netanyahu seemed almost giddy at times.

But hidden behind the public displays of affection, Obama delivered a powerful message. In the keynote address to Israeli young adults, he implored the gathering to press their leaders to take risks for peace.

He also had some tough words for his audience, criticizing Israeli settlements as "counterproductive" and speaking movingly of Palestinians suffering under Israeli military occupation.

"Let me say this as a politician. I can promise you this. Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks," he said. "Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things."

While addressed at the Israeli public, the nationally broadcast speech was also aimed at Netanyahu. On the most public of stages, Obama embraced the key argument of Israel's left wing: that the status quo, in which Israel controls millions of disenfranchised Palestinians, is unsustainable and that making concessions for peace is good not only for the Palestinians, but vitally needed for Israel itself to be able to survive.

Obama's speech, even the lines most critical of Israel, was repeatedly interrupted by applause from the preselected audience largely comprised of university students. Perhaps the loudest ovation came when he called for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"The speech gave young people a new spirit to push for a two-state solution," said Isaac Shickman, a 24-year-old Jerusalem university student who was in the audience. "It made me think of what I can do to promote peace and change in the country and the region."

Handled improperly, Obama's gambit might have backfired. Early on in his presidency, Obama's public criticism of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem raised tensions with Israel and contributed to more than four years of deadlock in peace efforts.

The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, for their future state and have refused to negotiate while Israel continues to expand its settlements there.

Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, said Thursday's speech came straight out of Obama's playbook back home.

"This was President Obama using some of the tactics that he uses here, meaning trying to speak directly to the people to pressure the leaders to do something, rather than focusing on the leaders themselves," he said.

He said the tactic risked antagonizing Netanyahu, but that Obama deftly handled the visit. Obama's warm words for Israel, his repeated pledges to Israeli security, a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the many joint interests of the two countries all helped blunt potential criticism.

"It's a successful speech, but it's a far cry from solving the problem," he said.

In a statement, Netanyahu's office said he "shares President Obama's view regarding the need to advance a peace that ensures the security of Israel's citizens." It would not comment on Obama's appeals to the public.

Israelis themselves were divided over the significance of the speech.

"It was a seminal speech, even an historic one," wrote Shalom Yerushalmi, a commentator in the Maariv daily. "Will it work? Who knows?"

Tzipi Livni, the leader of a small dovish political party who is Netanyahu's new chief negotiator, said she hoped Obama's message would rally more Israelis to the country's peace camp.

"I would be very happy if Israeli citizens who heard him were convinced that this is what needs to be done," she said.

But Naftali Bennett, a Cabinet minister who leads a pro-settler party, rejected the speech. "A Palestinian state is not the right way," he wrote on his Facebook page.

Such divisions in the Cabinet are a key reason why it seems unlikely that Netanyahu will make any bold new concessions to restart talks. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected back in Israel on Saturday night to discuss the matter.

During the trip, Obama also had some tough words for the Palestinians. While criticizing Jewish settlements, Obama told the Palestinians to stop using the issue as an "excuse" to do nothing and stressed that disagreements can be resolved only through negotiations.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said she found Obama's visit disappointing, but not surprising.

"I think the purpose of the visit, clearly, was to show support and identification with Israel," she said.

"The question has to be answered by the Americans, and the international community. How are they going to proceed from here?" she said. "It's not enough to say Kerry will be here frequently."

American presidents have a long history of using their position to cajole foreign audiences.

"I think presidents rightly see it as part of their duty," said political historian Evan Cornog, dean of the School of Communication at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. "The U.S. is a nation of ideas."

In 1963, John F. Kennedy paid a historic visit to a divided Berlin to show solidarity with the people of West Germany. A quarter of a century later, Ronald Reagan famously urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin Wall.

More recently, George W. Bush spoke of spreading democracy in the Middle East and turning Iraq into a model democracy. Early in his term, Obama traveled to Cairo in hopes of ushering in a new era of relations with the Muslim world.

Historians have debated whether these speeches led to changes, such as the collapse of communism or the rise of the Arab Spring, or whether they were simply signs of the times.

Cornog said assessing the impact of a president's words is hard to quantify but that Obama's appeal could play a role in swaying Israeli public opinion, particularly by bolstering the Israeli left.

"I certainly think the bully pulpit, that ability of the president to have an audience and to put forth arguments, it does mean something," he said.