Obama’s Mission in Israel

David Remnick in The New Yorker:

Remnick-israel-obama-580But beyond winning over his Israeli audience, what was Obama prepared to do about a peace process? “Peace is necessary,” he told his audience at the International Convention Center, in Jerusalem. “But peace is also just.” In diplo-speak, he was short on the “deliverables.” His harshest talk was not harsh at all. He criticized the building of settlements, but he was no longer making strict or detailed demands about halting such construction. So what would Obama say about Palestine? I admired Ben Ehrenreich’s recent New York Times Magazine piece from the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, in the West Bank—just as I have admired Lawrence Wright’s work for this magazine in Gaza, Amira Hass’s articles from the West Bank in Haaretz, Taghreed el-Khodary’s work for the Times in Gaza—precisely because that brand of reporting and writing gets at the realities of Palestinian life not through high-handed and uninformed opinion or second-hand speculation but through a keen attention to the people themselves. And so it was also good to hear Obama, after going to such lengths to demonstrate his understanding of Israeli opinion and realities, pivot and call on his audience to empathize with the day-to-day realities of Palestinians, whose “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.

In a sense, this was the moment that all of the events, along with all the previous language, were headed toward—an admonition, from a President determined to be a friend, that time is not on Israel’s side, that occupation was untenable. Obama added:

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.

The room where Obama spoke was packed mainly with liberal, sympathetic, young listeners, and they applauded him, including after the passage about Palestinian self-determination. An Israeli friend of mine, a liberal centrist who was previously inclined to see Obama as a naïve, indifferent, and untutored statesman, e-mailed me to say that I was right—that Obama may be wary of, even loathe, Netanyahu and Israel’s radical right, which prizes the ethos of the settlers, but he is sympathetic to a truly liberal form of Zionism, one that recognizes that there is no future without negotiation, settlement, and a real and just peace. Obama may be ill at ease at AIPAC conventions, but as a young man he was a natural ally to the liberal Jews of Hyde Park, where he raised his family and began his political career. It is not by accident that on this most self-consciously crafted mission he took a pass on addressing the right-leaning Knesset but will lay a wreath, this morning, on the grave of Theodor Herzl. He managed to combine support, affection, and warning in one speech and series of gestures. Perhaps the most Obamian, and strangely overlooked, moment in the speech came when he cast doubt on the powers of politicians. This is a constant theme. Obama talks frequently about how early civil-rights leaders came to Franklin Roosevelt, asking him to take action, only to have F.D.R. reply, in essence, “make me.” Force my hand. Create a real movement. “That’s where peace begins,” Obama said in his speech:

Not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people; not just in some carefully designed process, but in the daily connections, that sense of empathy that takes place among those who live together in this land and in this sacred city of Jerusalem. And 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. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.

More here.