JUST before the Israeli elections, I wrote an article for another news site in which I identified the “center-ground” of Israel politics, where the majority of Israelis find themselves:
“In Israel today, a clear majority of the population believes two truths to be self-evident: First, that peace will ultimately be achieved only through the concession of most of the West Bank to the Palestinians; and second, that the Palestinians are not reliable peace partners and would likely turn the West Bank into a launching pad for rockets, à la Gaza.”
President Obama addressed this ‘Middle Israel’ in his speech, saying:
“I know Israel has taken risks for peace. Brave leaders – Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin –reached treaties with two of your neighbors. You made credible proposals to the Palestinians at Annapolis. You withdrew from Gaza and Lebanon, and then faced terror and rockets. Across the region, you have extended a hand of friendship, and too often have been confronted with the ugly reality of anti-Semitism. So I believe that the Israeli people do want peace, and you have every right to be skeptical that it can be achieved.”
He spoke again of the Jewish connection to this land, of the justice of the Zionist cause, of the need for Israel to have security guarantees in any peace agreement signed. And he spoke of the need to free the Palestinians from occupation and, no less important, to free Israel from the moral burden of occupying another people.
“…you will define not simply the future of your relationship with the Palestinians – you will define the future of Israel as well. As Ariel Sharon said, ‘It is impossible to have a Jewish, democratic state and at the same time to control all of Eretz Israel. If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all.'”
The inference was clear: Don’t allow Israel to lose its democratic nature. And given his description of the special bond between Israel and the US as being one based on shared values, there is surely a deeper warning in that message: Would the US-Israel relationship survive if those values changed? An Israel that annexes the West Bank and makes the occupation permanent would be an apartheid or colonialist state. It would not, and could not, be the “embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization” as President Truman described the new Jewish State in 1948 – and as Obama quoted in the speech.
Where the new Israeli government stands on these issues is an open question. The coalition includes Tzipi Livni’s leftist Ha’tnua but also Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, which is not only opposed to a two-state solution but wishes to extend Israeli sovereignty to all the settlements, rendering a contiguous Palestinian state impossible. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid is committed to the principle of land-for-peace but skeptical of Palestinian intentions. Meanwhile Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeated his support for negotiations leading to a Palestinian state, but almost every other Knesset member from his Likud Beiteinu faction – including those appointed to key government positions by him – is resolutely opposed to this.
With such mixed messages coming from Israel’s leaders, it should come as no surprise that Obama chose to speak over their heads, directly to the people.
IN his speech, President Obama revealed a deep understanding of, and empathy for, Israel and the Zionist vision. Meanwhile, he pulled no punches in affirming the injustice of the occupation, and he called on Israelis to share in his belief that Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are the real deal, that they are ready and willing to make peace.
What must follow are some key questions addressed to Israel and the Palestinians.
Firstly, will Netanyahu do all he can to support Tzipi Livni in serious negotiations with the Palestinians, or will he continue to waste public money expanding settlements outside of the ‘blocs’, in areas guaranteed to be part of any future Palestinian state? Can he, in his third term as Prime Minister, finally make the transition from politician to statesman? (Was it a coincidence that the four Israeli Prime Ministers mentioned in Obama’s speech were: David Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzchak Rabin and Ariel Sharon? Or was this is a subtle reminder to Netanyahu that Israel has had leaders with the courage to make game-changing decisions, leading rather than being led by public opinion or inflexible ideology?)
Secondly, is Obama justified in his conviction that the current Palestinian leadership is genuinely committed to a lasting peace? If so, when will we see evidence that the Palestinians have finally abandoned their rejection of the very notion that Israel is the state of the Jewish people, and ended the fraudulent denial of Jewish historical connections to the land? Will they be able to let go of the dream of the ‘return’ of refugees to Israel, acknowledging that it is incompatible with a two-state solution; just as most Israelis have accepted that the same is true of the dream of holding onto to the Jewish heartlands of Judea and Samaria?
It was notable that when Obama outlined the formula for what peace will require, the audience of young Israelis applauded loudly, even though it included the line:
“Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable.”
But here’s the rub: What would have been the reaction of an audience of Palestinians students to its counterpoint?:
“Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state, and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security.”
Ultimately, the answers to these questions will determine whether Obama will witness the birth of a historic peace between Israelis and Palestinians, or end his presidency the same way as did Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, viewing this conflict with frustration and despair.