Obama Calls for Empathy in Israel: Now Netanyahu and Abbas Must Act

President Obama gave an absolutely terrific speech yesterday in Israel.

The key section of the speech occurred when the president declared that Israelis need to truly understand how Palestinians see the conflict differently than they do. Obama urged them to "put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes." Others have already discussed the speech in detail.

In this piece, I want to point out that this concept of putting oneself in the shoes of one's opponent or even just someone different from oneself, i.e., empathy, is at the heart of Obama's entire worldview. He has drawn on the idea of empathy repeatedly as part of his push to encourage and invigorate ties across lines of race, culture, religion, region, etc. in this country. As I've written in my book Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity, empathy is thus central to his call to strengthen our sense of being one American people.

In The Audacity of Hope Obama spoke of empathy as being "at the heart of my moral code" and defined it as "a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes."

In a commencement speech at Southern New Hampshire University in 2007, Obama lamented:

... our empathy deficit -- the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us -- the child who's hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room. (These remarks appear in a number of other speeches as well, including commencement addresses at Xavier and Northwestern.)

Obama addressed empathy and the importance of understanding the perspective of others once again at the University of Michigan's commencement in 2010, where he called on Americans to engage:

... in different experiences with different kinds of people. If you grew up in a big city, spend some time with some who grew up in a rural town. If you find yourself only hanging around with people of your race or your ethnicity or your religion, broaden your circle to include people who've had different backgrounds and life experiences. You'll learn what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes, and in the process, you'll help make this democracy work.

So now the president has spoken to Israelis and Palestinians, and I hope he has achieved his goal of increasing empathy for those on the other side of the conflict. It is a worthy goal and one that can help push the two sides closer to peace. At this point, I want to pivot to what comes next. The next move has to come from the leaders in the region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Currently, the two leaders and their respective governments are not engaged in direct negotiations. I would argue that instead they are engaged in a contest to see which one can be more stupid. At this point, it's a tie. Abbas has refused to negotiate until Israel stops building new settlements on disputed land in the West Bank. Netanyahu has refused to stop building settlements as a precondition to negotiations. As I said, a stupidity contest.

I should note that there was an Israeli halt in settlements (there are far too many qualifications to discuss in detail here, the main one being settlement building in disputed East Jerusalem) for 10 months in 2010-11, and Abbas only came to the table to begin direct negotiations after 9 months had elapsed. When the halt period ended, Israel refused to extend it and resumed building settlements, and Abbas walked away from the negotiations. Wikipedia covers this with a well-sourced entry here.

I'd consider both of those moves incredibly stupid. Either way, the easiest way to achieve a halt in the building of new settlements is to start and achieve progress in the negotiations. The Israeli move to continue building new settlements was obviously motivated by a narrow (and stupid) definition of self-interest. The Palestinian refusal to negotiate while settlements are being built doesn't make strategic sense to me, but now Abbas has backed himself into a corner of his own making. Irrespective of that, he needs a way out that doesn't undercut his position among his own people.

Can something be done to cut this Gordian knot? A New York Times article from Wednesday offered the possibility of doing so. Apparently, Abbas is going to propose to Obama that Netanyahu: "Can pledge to you secretly that he will stop settlement activities during the period of negotiations... (He does not have to announce it.)"

Netanyahu must realize that Abbas needs to be able to show his people that his renunciation of violence can bring about results, which include a halt to settlements in the near term and a real solution to the problem, meaning a viable Palestinian state. For Israel, a solution means a final and full peace agreement signed that ends the conflict.

Netanyahu needs to respond in a positive way to the quite reasonable scenario laid out in the above document. Abbas has to realize, and it's clear from these documents that he already does, that getting back to the negotiations is the quickest (and maybe only) way to get a settlement freeze. I'm not interested in debates over the legality or morality of the settlements, I'm interested in finding a solution both sides can accept.

President Obama has already played a very positive public role, through his speech, in encouraging a settlement. It looks like now it's time for him to play a private, out of the spotlight role as well. But ultimately it's going to be the two peoples and the two leaders who have to make peace.