To be scrupulously fair, the tone of the clip isn’t true to the tone of the entire speech. The Standard has the transcript. Most of what preceded this was as florid a valentine to Israel and Zionism as a U.S. president has ever delivered. It had to be in order to prepare his audience for the “put yourself in their shoes” passage, which of course was the real point of the speech. He couldn’t convince Netanyahu to restart the peace process with the Palestinians so now he’s going to try to convince his Israeli constituents to pressure him into doing so. (Now might be an opportune moment for this pitch.) And of course the media is breathless about it. His other landmark speech in the Middle East, in Cairo in 2009, totally changed the Middle East for the better, didn’t it? I’m sure this one will be just as significant.
Elliott Abrams responds by reminding O that there’s a long, long list of Middle Eastern nations that need tutoring on empathy and Israel’s not near the top:
In his remarks today he pictured an Arab world, and a Palestinian political system, yearning for peace with Israel through negotiated compromises. This ignores the vast ocean of anti-Semitism in the Arab world, and the inculcation of hatred of Jews and Israel in generation after generation of Arabs—including Palestinians. And it ignores the rising tide of Islamism in the region, which threatens to engulf all those political figures who would really like a compromise peace. The Arab world Obama described is a place far more desirous of, and far closer to, peace with Israel than the one Israelis actually see around them.
Obama urged Israelis to push their own government toward peace: “Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.” This may be taken as a swipe at the new Israeli government or at Netanyahu, but even if it is not he is again addressing it to the wrong audience. Israelis cannot “create the change they want to see” in the hearts of Palestinians, Egyptians, and other Arabs. “Now is the time for the Arab World to take steps toward normalized relations with Israel,” Obama said. And he is right, but does anyone want to take bets on how likely that is?
Here’s the one passage in Obama’s speech that I can’t get over. Literally no one, except maybe George W. Bush, still believes the following is true; it would have been a tough sell at any time, but at the moment it’s mind-boggling.
Four years ago, I stood in Cairo in front of an audience of young people. Politically, religiously, they must seem a world away. But the things they want – they’re not so different from you. The ability to make their own decisions; to get an education and a good job; to worship God in their own way; to get married and have a family. The same is true of the young Palestinians that I met in Ramallah this morning, and of young Palestinians who yearn for a better life in Gaza.
Which Egyptian “young people” does he mean? The ~5% of the country that’s liberal and reform-minded and that quickly disappeared from political view after Mubarak was deposed? Or the majority of the population that says they want to tear up the treaty with Israel and then elected a guy known for demanding that Palestinians be returned to “the entire land of Palestine”? If you want a truly honest, bracing explanation of what’s wrong with the peace process, skip O’s shpiel below and follow that last link. It’s all there: Screeching demonization of the “bloodsuckers” plus the ember of Palestinian revanchism that’ll burn forever, whether a “peace” deal is ever struck or not. It’s very, very O-like (O for Obama and Oprah) to think that a speech cajoling one side to understand their neighbor a little better might help resolve a zero-sum game over the most famously disputed territory in the world. One side insists on a right of return (and always will, even after they’re granted their own state) and the other side insists they can’t have it. Here’s to lasting peace.