6/03/15 President Obama Speaks to the israeli People

by Marc Schulman

President Obama has been on a charm offensive over the past two weeks. First, the President focused on the American Jewish community during his visit to Adas Israel Congregation synagogue in Washington, D.C. Yesterday evening, President Obama focused on winning over the hearts and minds of Israelis, in the lengthy interview he gave to Israeli television’s Channel 2, (Israel’s TV ratings leader). These combined efforts, together with President Obama’s interview granted to Jeffrey Goldberg two week ago, have all been designed to reassure both the Jewish community and Israelis that the President cares about them – and that “he has Israel’s back”. In addition, these presidential appearances seem designed to criticize Prime Minister Netanyahu, as partial payback for his recent speech to the US Congress. Last week I wrote to take issue with what I felt was President Obama’s misguided view of the importance of the antisemitic nature of the Iranian regime. This week, I compliment President Obama for his understanding of Prime Minister Netanyahu and vast segments of our society.

President Obama stated in his Israeli television interview last night that “Prime Minister Netanyahu is somebody who is predisposed to think of security first; to think perhaps that peace is naïve; to see the worst possibilities, as opposed to the best possibilities of Arab partners and Palestinians partners.”

President Obama’s assessment above is absolutely correct. The US President precisely and succinctly articulated Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position. Moreover, rightly or wrongly, that statement accurately reflects the view of the overwhelming majority of Israel’s citizenry. After over 70 years of warfare it is very hard for Israelis – even those who lean to the left – to see “the best possibilities of Arab partners and Palestinians partners.” Any prospect for embracing an overly hopeful perspective was extinguished within most Israelis during the second Intifadah, when bombs were exploding in all of our cities; or after our withdrawal from all of Lebanon, that was followed by missiles on the North by Hezbollah; or after that, by our withdrawal from Gaza that was followed by the missiles on Tel Aviv. If we needed a reminder of the ever-present tensions of “the situation”, preparatory drills were held throughout the country yesterday, to simulate a missile attack – and once again, the siren blared. So attempting to persuade Israelis that we should adopt a more optimistic attitude towards our potential Palestinian or Arab partners will not convince many Israelis that our Prime Minister is wrong.

That being said, President Obama might have a slightly greater success influencing Israelis about our responsibilities regarding Palestinian rights. In his interview, President Obama stated: “The moral claims of ‘a Palestinian family in Ramallah’ that suffers restrictions of movement ‘have a claim on us, they have a claim on me’.”

Of course, if President Obama wants to have any chance of swaying Israeli opinions, the President needs to decouple his view of the “plight” of the Palestinians from that of African Americans in the United States. It is true that both groups have been, and are, discriminated against – and certainly both groups have suffered. However, the historic analogy between the two is very weak. African Americans were taken as captives from their homes and kept as slaves until a Civil War freed them. Many of African Americans endured a century or more of discrimination, even after the Civil War ended.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a traditional nationalistic conflict, with two peoples claiming the same land. This conflict would have ended long ago, if Palestinians had agreed to any of the previously offered compromise solutions. Regardless, if President Obama (or any other western leader) wants to motivate Israeli to change their view or actions in any way, the President must speak to our better nature – President Obama should address himself to those of us who feel that occupying another group is wrong and to those of us who realize we cannot continue to maintain an occupation and remain a democracy. President Obama needs to understand there are very few of us who are convinced we have a true partner who really wants peace, but rather understand it is in our own interest to find ways to stop occupying another people, while still insuring we maintain our own security.

Polls have consistently shown that the overwhelming majority of Israelis support a two-state solution and would like to end the occupation. However, most Israelis do not see how we attain that goal without endangering Israel’s security. Unfortunately, how to achieve that balance is the conundrum that neither President Obama, nor the leaders of Israel’s left-of-center parties have yet found a solution.