What to Make of Obama's Israel Speech

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Ben Cohen
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President Obama's visit to Israel and speech in Jerusalem on Thursday has been widely praised from all sides of the political spectrum - a sign that Obama did something right, and wrong.

Obama spent a good portion of the speech imploring Israelis to empathize with Palestinians and "to look at the world through their eyes", urging young Israelis to take action and force their leaders to move the peace process forward.

"Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do," said Obama. "You must create the change that you want to see....Your voices must be louder than the extremists who would drown them out. Your hopes must light the way forward. Look to a future in which Jews, Muslims and Christians can all live in peace and greater prosperity in this Holy Land."

Furthermore, Obama explicitly called Israel out for illegally occupying Palestinian territory and not allowing them to create an internationally recognized state of their own. "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," said Obama. "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."

Given the political realities at home, this statement was no small thing. The overwhelming majority of the speech was nauseatingly pro-Israel, but Obama took a significant risk by directly challenging Israel on Palestinian self determination and settler activity.

We can only guess what Obama's true feelings are on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis are, but we know he is hamstrung by organizations like AIPAC who make overt support of Palestinian political aspirations close to impossible. Movement towards a peace process have little to with morality and much to do with timing. In American politics, you must support the status quo until circumstance provides cover to make meaningful action.

There are many indications that Obama does get it. Every time an opportunity presents itself, Obama makes moves to shift towards a more balanced policy. The appointment of political realist Chuck Hagel to Secretary of Defense was a perfect example of this. He effectively neutralized the Right and Left, while sending a message to the Israelis that the status quo was no longer acceptable. His speech in Jerusalem yesterday reinforced that message, and current Israeli leaders will understand that concessions are going to have to be made. Whether they like it or not, Washington has a say over policy in Israel and there is only so much they can do without facing consequence.

However, the reality is that Obama has done very, very little for the Palestinians and the peace process in general. Obama has caved to Netanyahu on issue after issue, calling him to halt settlement building and stop incursions into Gaza and the West Bank to no avail. Obama has gone out of his way to prove to the world how much he loves Israel, upping military funding and routinely condemning Hamas and other militant Palestinian factions without any serious rebukes to Israel's continued annexation of Palestinian land and needless military provocations. It is no secret that Obama's relationship with Netanyahu is completely dysfunctional, and so far the Israeli prime minister  has largely gotten what he wanted. Netanyahu is a savvy politician, particularly adept at manipulating American politics. He sounds like an American (he lived here), and has built relationships with powerful allies in the States.

But there are positive signs that Obama is playing the long game here, and is beginning to use his second term to affect some real changes on the ground. As stated earlier, the first sign was appointment of Hagel, and the second was this speech and the challenges he set out for Israelis to take up. Obama understands that politicians only respond to political realities, and it's clear that new ones will need to be made if anything is to change. Like all leaders, Netanyahu is mostly concerned with his own survival, and if that means making concessions down the line, he'll do it whether he likes it or not. Obama's direct plea to young Israelis was an attempt to change political realities for Netanyahu, knowing that he too is bound by his own realities at home.

Of course words don't mean anything without action, and we're yet to see substantive policy coming out of Washington. And there's no way of knowing whether they will come or not.

But there's something to be at least slightly hopeful about.