Obama in Jerusalem, No Surprises But Mission Accomplished

President Barack Obama gestures during his speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center in Jerusalem, Israel, Thursday, March 21
President Barack Obama gestures during his speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center in Jerusalem, Israel, Thursday, March 21, 2013, (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The second day of President Obama's visit to the Middle East was very different from the first. Yesterday was a love-fest with Prime Minister Netanyahu. During their joint press conference, each of the two leaders tried to outdo the other with jokes and witticisms demonstrating that they like each other and that Obama loves everything about Israel. Obama even spoke in Hebrew at several points. In short, yesterday was a party and Obama seemed to be having the time of his life.

The party ended in Ramallah. Maybe it was his view of the separation wall from his helicopter or maybe the fact that he was away from the Israelis, but the face he presented at President Abbas' welcoming ceremony for him was utterly different. He looked miserable. Was it because he just didn't want to be there or because he is ashamed that his administration has decided to parrot the Israeli line on pretty much everything? Either way, he seemed sad and his words were halting.

He didn't offer the Palestinians much of anything though, other than the stricken look on his face. Yet, there were signs that the times are changing. He repeatedly referred to a Palestinian state, using the strongest formulation for that concept, "State of Palestine." (Of course, he knows that his administration stood with Israel against any UN recognition of such an entity last year). Nonetheless, his references to Palestinian statehood were utterly unambiguous and clear.

And, in words that must have shaken Netanyahu, Obama referred to "the moral force of nonviolence" to resist the occupation. Coming out of left field, this was probably an indication that Obama read the Sunday New York Times magazine cover story on non-violent resistance in the West Bank by Ben Ehrenreich. Obama compared the Palestinian struggle to the civil rights movement in America, invoking his own daughters as beneficiaries of that struggle. This presidential encouragement of the one form of protest that Israeli officials fear most as threatening their hold on the West Bank was significant. It is easy to imagine Palestinian protesters now marching against the settlements, waving photos of Obama along with his words endorsing non-violent resistance's "moral force."

On specifics, though, it was all boilerplate. Asked at his press conference about settlement expansion, Obama made clear that he opposed it but also that he did not accept the Palestinian view that it should halt during the course of negotiations. Obama, like Netanyahu, demands unconditional negotiations which, in reality, means negotiations while Israel gobbles up more of the land. Abbas made clear in response that he wasn't having it.

Upon returning to Jerusalem, Obama delivered his speech to Israeli students at the Jerusalem Convention Center. It was mostly standard stuff (lots of praise for Israel, Zionism, empathy over Jewish suffering etc.) but also included repeated and emphatic calls for peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state. The most significant part came when Obama referred to the Palestinians' right to justice, specifically referencing settler violence that goes unpunished.

But the Palestinian people's right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their 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.

I don't think any president previously has used the language of justice in discussing Palestinian rights, which is, of course, how Palestinians rightly see it.

It is telling that this part of the speech was met with prolonged applause. In fact, every reference to Palestinian statehood was received with the kind of ovation both AIPAC and the United States Congress reserve for bashing Palestinians, not for discussing their rights. Although many will dismiss the Jerusalem speech as milquetoast, no one would say that had Obama delivered it in Washington, where only pro-Likud pieties are permitted. That might be considered ironic if we weren't all accustomed to it by now. The lobby does not control the discourse in Israel. It does here. But that is no reason to downplay the significance of Obama's unequivocal endorsement of a "State of Palestine" and justice for the Palestinian people as prerequisites for security for Israel.

Obama accomplished what he had to. He reached over Netanyahu's head and spoke directly to the Israeli people, explaining why peace is in their own best interest and why justice for the Palestinians cannot be denied. And he was cheered.

When negotiations begin, and they will, the capital he earned today will be viewed as a smart investment indeed.

This piece is crossposted with The Washington Spectator.