President Obama capped off the substantive parts of his visit to Israel with a speech to Israeli students Thursday afternoon in which he again focused heavily on the Palestinian theme. He repeated the standard, discredited claim that “given demographics,” Israel could only survive as a Jewish and democratic state by creating an “independent and viable Palestine.”
He allowed that: “There is no question that Israel has faced Palestinian factions who turned to terror, and leaders who missed historic opportunities. That is why security must be at the center of any agreement.”
Obama’s stock words, though, about the need to create Palestine drew lusty ovations from parts of a crowd that included a good many Arab students and left-wing Jewish students. Obama has been criticized for declining to address the Israeli Knesset. Claims that he was seeking a more congenial audience of Israeli students seemed borne out by Thursday afternoon’s address and its setting. He went so far as to seem to circumvent Israel’s political leadership by declaring that “political leaders will not take risks unless people push them to take risks.”
It was not hard to see shades of the same, delusions-of-grandeur, world-changing Obama who had addressed a Cairo audience of students almost four years ago, although in a different context and with different aims.
Earlier in the day Obama had gone to Ramallah for a meeting with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. At their joint press conference Obama retracted demands he made during his first term for an Israeli settlement freeze, saying no preconditions should be set for Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Yet, in his Jerusalem speech, Obama went back to making hard knocks against Jewish life over the 1967 Green Line, calling it “counterproductive” while sparing the PA any criticism for problematic behavior like systematic incitement and rampant anti-Israeli violence.
And not only anti-Israeli; Obama’s arrival in Israel on Wednesday had “sparked rage on the Palestinian street, as hundreds of Palestinian protesters rallied in Ramallah and Bethlehem against the visit. The protesters ripped posters of the American president and sprayed swastikas on others.”
It continued on Thursday during his Ramallah visit, as
Around 150 demonstrators chanted anti-American slogans, saying they wanted weapons not presidential visits.
“We want RPGs, not collaboration with the CIA,” they shouted, referring to rocket-propelled grenades….
In the Gaza Strip…Palestinian opposition to Obama’s visit was more militant.
Guerrillas fired two rockets at southern Israel in the early morning, causing only slight damage, in a signal that the world should not ignore them in any discussions on regional diplomacy.
Dozens of protesters in Gaza city smacked pictures of Obama with the soles of their shoes, burned US flags and chanted that the president should “get out of Palestine.”
The contrast between such conduct and his uniformly gracious reception in Israel clearly did not persuade Obama that an enduring cultural difference between Israel and the two Palestinian entities makes grandiose talk of a definitive peace hollow.
Obama’s Jerusalem speech did include resonant affirmations of commitment to Israel, most notably:
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. Today, I want to tell you—particularly the young people—that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd. You are not alone.
At the same time, Obama’s words on the Syrian crisis were curiously one-sided. Calling on Syrian president Bashar Assad to step down, Obama declared that “America will also insist that 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”—seemingly oblivious to the fact that radical Sunni forces now fighting Assad match him in brutality and exceed him in ideological extremism.
The Israeli leadership, of course, is acutely aware of that fact and just as worried about Assad’s chemical and other weaponry falling into radical-Sunni as into Shiite Hizballah’s hands. And the Israeli leadership has, beyond question, raised that concern in its talks with Obama these past two days. That Obama persists in portraying the Syrian crisis as a revolt against a political system—instead of the vicious, tribal, sectarian war it has become—again puts his ability to grasp Middle Eastern reality in question.
It is doubtful, though, that lofty words to students about a two-state solution will have much lasting effect, and whether Obama will return to the one-sided pressures on Israel that marked his first term is something only time will tell.
A possibly more significant moment of Obama’s visit occurred during his press conference Wednesday evening with Netanyahu when he said:
Each country has to make its own decisions. Israel is differently situated from the US. I would not expect that the prime minister would defer decisions on his country’s security to other countries. I would not do that regarding my country’s security.
Many pundits have taken these words as a “green light” for a possible Israeli strike on Iran—and not only pundits. A clearly concerned Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei quickly reacted on Thursday by stating: “At times the officials of the Zionist regime threaten to launch a military invasion but they themselves know that if they make the slightest mistake the Islamic Republic will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground.”
Such bluster aside, Israel prefers in any case not to be the country to remove the Iranian nuclear threat. Obama’s assurances that “options are on the table” are questioned by those pointing to his recent withdrawal of an aircraft carrier from the Persian Gulf, letting pointless negotiations with Tehran drag on, and strange choices of defense secretary and secretary of state. Those more optimistic can point to the fact that not only Israel but also Sunni Arab states are demanding that something be done and stressing the severe perils of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race.
Overall, if Obama’s visit leaves Israel’s leadership with the sense of a friendlier, more sympathetic president, and with a sense that an Israeli decision to move on Iran would not evoke punishment but, rather, support from Washington, then the visit comes out positive on the balance sheet.
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