President Obama’s visit to Israel, and particularly his speech has been hailed as a potential turning point in US-Israel relations after the chill of his first term, and perhaps even the push the “peace process” needs. While this writer was cynical about his 2009 speech in Cairo, rather than sending up yet another Obama speech, it’s worth reflecting on the two speeches and comparing their messages.
The Cairo speech sought, even before it started, “a new beginning” in US-Muslim relations. Obama acknowledged, quite apologetically, the history of tension between the two, and sought to set the record straight on how much the US and the Muslim world might actually have in common culturally, despite appearances and rhetoric. The intent was to create common ground where it did not exist, and may still not exist. As a new president looking for a new approach to an old problem, one can understand why this would be a priority back in 2009 (as misguided as his foreign policy was, and maybe still is).
On the other hand, in the Jerusalem speech, you almost lose count of the references to how much America has in common with Israel: a robust democracy, the spirit of entrepreneurship, the value of education, a free press, the sense of responsibility of government, commitment to freedom, and common enemies in Hizballah and Iran (and while he didn’t call Hamas an enemy, he demanded that they renounce violence and recognize Israel). Unlike to the Muslim world, Obama did not have to look far, not stretch far to find very current and relevant examples of the shared values and culture.
The key difference is in the way one talks to a friend, as opposed to someone who isn’t (yet) a friend, and may never be. To Israel, Obama mixed praise with strident urges to prioritize the path toward peace. He could never be so forthright in a message to the Muslim world. A good friend does not hold back criticism (and there are no shortage of Israel’s critics who do this as “friends”). On the other hand, any criticism of Islam in his first speech was carefully limited to extremist elements (who just happen to all be Muslims), and very broad flowery visions on the benefits that equality for women and democracy might bring to the Muslim world.
By necessity in his message of peace to Israel, Obama noted what will be required by the Palestinians. A speech like that in Ramallah would likely have ended in a riot, and he knows it. His speech, and indeed the whole trip to Israel was a bitter pill to swallow for the Palestinians.
God was everywhere in both speeches – but the endings were strikingly different. In Cairo, he ended quoting from the Koran, the Talmud and the Bible, framing them into a universal message of peace being God’s vision for the world “… may God’s peace be upon you”. But in Jerusalem, there was no need to mince words. Instead, as classic as apple pie: “May God bless you. May God bless Israel. May God bless the United States of America”.
The Obama of 2009 was fresh-faced, bright-eyed and full of vision for how he might make the world a better place. Four years of “Arab Spring”, drones, and diplomatic games with Iran may well have brought him back to the real world for his second term. It remains to be seen if anything will change as a result of this speech. But for once, Obama has called a spade a spade, and has declared clearly to all that Israel is an ally of the US and will remain so. Both of those messages are a welcome change.