Can Obama Make Israelis Believe Again?

The American President poured on the charm in an effort to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to get back on the peace process — and a two-state solution

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Jason Reed / Reuters

President Barack Obama acknowledges the audience after delivering a policy speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center on March 21, 2013

The purpose of President Obama’s visit to Israel finally emerged on Thursday, in the ebullient afterglow of the speech that was billed as the centerpiece of his trip, and lived up to the billing. After a first term spent trying to alter the mechanics of the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over the land they both claim — tinkering with settlement freezes, summoning leaders to the White House — Obama decided on a new approach to Middle East peace: he’d talk them into it.

The master orator brought all his skills to the Jerusalem address, braiding emotion, history, reassurance, logic and personal charisma into a speech that did to the audience what a really good Obama speech can be relied upon to do: it lifted them out of themselves and made them think anything was possible. It was a stunning success, at least until his listeners return to the realities awaiting them right outside the auditorium (which stands behind the bus stop that was the scene of the last terror attack inside Jerusalem, a 2011 backpack bomb that killed one).

“He’s so good, I loved it even though I don’t agree with some of what he said,” says Gila Kordana, descending a staircase from the balcony in a crowd buzzing with the experience. Such as? “I’m not really for the idea of two states,” she says, not a small thing. Nor was she much taken with Obama’s take on the young Palestinians he’d seen earlier the same afternoon at the West Bank city of Al Bireh. “Talking to them,” he said, “they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons.”

(PHOTOS: President Obama’s First Official Trip to Israel)

“My brother’s in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], and they deal with 9-year-old kids who throw bottles,” Kordana says. “So I didn’t go for that part about them being just like us. ‘My daughters, your daughters, their daughters,’” Kordana says, paraphrasing Obama’s plea for “empathy” and seeing your own in the faces of the other: “You can’t put them in the same triangle.”

The reality lurking outside the afterglow was not lost on the White House. Obama understands that the two-state framework is in danger of collapse — the idea that the competition between Jews and Palestinians can be resolved by negotiating a sovereign Palestine on the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967, and Gaza Strip, which remains virtually sealed off by the IDF. But the new government assembled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is officially committed to resuming the talks, and Obama spent hours with both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas trying to bridge the mistrust between the two.

He’s made progress, according to a senior Obama Administration official. The larger problem is that their constituents have no faith in the talks anymore, either, especially the young people Obama is trying to coax. “They do not trust the two-state solution and vision anymore, and this is very dangerous,” Abbas said in a joint news conference with Obama in Ramallah, the West Bank city. “The younger generation no longer believes.”

(MORE: Obama in Israel: Running to Stay Put)

Much the same is true in Israel, where polls for years have found a tension between the appetite for peace — still strong, in general — and an overwhelming pessimism that it will come to pass. The skepticism has devastated support for the “peace camp” in Israeli politics and empowered right-wing activists who support expansion of the about 200 settlements that amount to a slow takeover of the West Bank. Such activists hold senior posts in Netanyahu’s new government.

“It’s hard for political leaders to get too far ahead of your constituents,” Obama acknowledged in Ramallah. “But if we can get direct negotiations started again, I believe the shape of a potential deal is there.”

Therein lies the rationale for Obama’s three-day charm offensive in Israel, a full-court press designed to win over a Jewish population long wary of his attention to the Islamic world. The remedial effort appears to be going very, very well — with hard-shell Israelis marveling at the speed with which the nation has run into Obama’s arms. On 88 FM, a DJ spun Salt-n-Pepa’s “Whatta Man” and name-checked the President. On the front page of the Jerusalem Post, Herb Keinon wrote: “He had us at the word ‘shalom.’’’

The question is whether the newfound popularity will produce some newfound power of persuasion, especially on a topic as fraught as peace. His audience in Jerusalem was invitation-only and skewed young, Obama’s sweet spot: most were from universities inside Israel. “The reason he gave this speech to this audience today is because he believes people need to get invested in this,” a senior Obama Administration official said afterward. Mention of peace talks brought, like the lyrics of a nearly forgotten song, the vocabulary of diplomacy stretching back two decades now, which of course is much of the problem: it’s gone on too long and drifted into a world of its own. “If people don’t get reinvested in the idea that peace is in their interest and is possible, it doesn’t matter what kind of confidence-building measures you have,” the official said.

(MORE: Bibi and Barack: A Buddy Movie Opens in Israel)

Can it work? In the convention center, the reception was enthusiastic, and not only for the portions that both stroked and stoked the Israelis — the eloquent enunciation of the inspiration African-Americans had taken from the Passover narrative, for instance, and the defiant proclamation: “Israel isn’t going anywhere.” The words brought a thunderous ovation — the kind Netanyahu receives, projecting the jut-jawed steadfastness that accounts for much of his popularity. But it meant more “when someone from outside said it aloud: ‘This is going to be a Jewish country,’” Kordana says. “It makes you feel more confident, more secure in your place.”

But there was also considerable applause heard for the challenging sections: Obama’s earnest case for believing again in a peace effort. At times the response was loud enough a stranger might have believed that the left wing in Israel is no longer referred to as Lonesome Doves.

“And now I’m not,” says Liat Biron, a graduate student in public policy at Tel Aviv University, one of the last leftist holdouts, as she left the auditorium, “because the President of the most powerful nation in the world feels the same way. “

But was anyone persuaded? “He made a very good argument,” says Dvir Goldstein, a student at Open University, looking past the enchantment of the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to hear Obama speak. “I’ll certainly give new thought to the points that he offered.” He was already talking about it, after all.

“At the end of the day,” says Kordana, “he’s a good politician.”

MORE: The Secret of the Wonder Weapon That Israel Showed Off to Obama

36 comments
samparis3
samparis3

Surely no thinking person can can believe Israel does not want peace. Nor can intelligence believe Israel is creating the "undertow" of isolation. Jews have not been popular in European and Arab countries for a long time. Standing their ground makes them even more unpopular. They are independent, aggressive, creative and more liberal in an intelligent way than most Liberals. You are not going to bend over and have them kiss your A--. Too much of that went on before today's Israel. If Arabs want peace, they will have to make the effort. To give these people who still teach hatred and Jihad anything in advance is folly.  

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

Face it, the "master orator" is all show and no go. He stuck Hillary Clinton over there at State, getting her out of politics while he kept all the power in the White House, not that it would have made any difference with Clinton having zero diplomacy experience and skills. 

Then came the George Mitchell ploy -- he was kept out of the loop also. Now we count upon Obama to convince Israelis not to be Zionists? Will they start eating pork? No. Obama isn't a  stunning success, he's a miserable failure. Believe in him and you believe in nothing.  

Well, not quite. Zionistss can believe in him.

Obama AIPAC speech, Jun 4, 2008--
"Let me be clear. Israel's security is sacrosanct. It is non-negotiable. The Palestinians need a state that is contiguous and cohesive, and that allows them to prosper — but any agreement with the Palestinian people must preserve Israel's identity as a Jewish state, with secure, recognized and defensible borders. Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

The Israelis may or may not be captivated by Obama's words, as Americans have been before, but it doesn't matter when it comes to Israelis v. Palestinians. What are those people doing on our land? Waste 'em.

Meanwhile, Obama is no longer a player, but Erdogan is. He insists that Israel end the Gaza blockade, and he's scheduled to travel to Gaza next month.  The "apology" wasn't enough. Arabs in the area will see Obama and the US being made the fool over Iran, Iraq and Syria, and the instability -- just what the Pentagon wants -- will endure, just as it has for a very long time.

arvay
arvay

The two-state "solution" is a dead duck, has been for some time. Obama's crawlback to accepting Israeli settlements just puts a big rock on the grave.

Israel as presently constituted -- an ever more solidly apartheid state, hated and fought against by all its neighbors -- is doomed. Millions of displaced Palestinians who will never be absorbed by the nations that gave them refuge will never stop their fight to return.


aikls
aikls

All about politics. Obama trying to get support for democrats by next election. Sad. This will go on for the next century tsk tsk.

delta5297
delta5297

There's three futures for Israel: they can give the Palestinians their own state (2 state solution), they can give Palestinians full citizenship as Israelis (1 state solution), or they can make second-class citizens out of the Palestinians (apartheid state). Or you could completely deny any sort of citizenship to the Palestinians in an attempt to get them to leave the West Bank, but that would be perversely ironic considering that's exactly what the Nazis did to the Jews with the Nuremburg Laws.

JLPG77
JLPG77

Koranda, you are absolutely correct. Your daughters are not the same, let's say mine daughters. See, yours are the 'chosen ones'....boooohhhhh uuuuuuu. Then, take that away, and there they are the same! So socking. Unless of course, yours have a 'special' way of dying. Because at the end, that is what matter.

And, for the nine years old kids throwing 'bottles', what would you expect, given their conditions? Roses, money, love. How naive. I am sure some, not all, of those who died in the 1940's would have love to have stones to throw.  And, yes I am not using the H word, I leave that for H-obsessed folks. So there.

j.villain1
j.villain1

This was all about kicking the can down the road praying that Palestine doesn't blow up while he bombs Iran and Syria for Israel. What every one will read this as is the obituary for the two state solution. The Palestinians know that. Now the question is do they continue to live as people with out human rights owned by Israelis or do they fight. 

On the Israeli side they know that in the land from the river to the sea Jews are already less than 50% of the population.  The demographic trends are in the Palestinians favour so they are going to have to make a move that will include stealing the West bank and throwing the Palestinians out of their homes to give to Jews. Most of the members of the Knesset were elected on that platform. That will mean the Palestinians that aren't already living in refuge camps in other countries will be forced into them. How many are the US willing to take since the US is just as responsible for this intentional disaster as the Israelis are?

There are two billion Muslims in the world and they are going to hold the US just as responsible as Israel for the inhuman treatment of other Muslims and the destruction of some of their holiest sites. Remember this day if Americans start dyeing from terror attacks again.

ricardo_lion
ricardo_lion

@j.villain1   Destruction of holy sites:  Muslims bomb each other`s mosques and burn churchres and synagoges.  They also destroyed the giant Buddhas in Afghanistan.  Human rights for Arabs in Palestine:  Only in the 20% of the region called Israel.  No rights in the judenrein Gaza, Jordan and the most of Judea and Samaria under the PA rule.

aboutbebout
aboutbebout

We know Obama has a way with words.  We've been marinated in his oratory for four years.  And he's a good golfer.

RobertMccauley
RobertMccauley like.author.displayName 1 Like

Just more Obama speech Only stupid people trust anything Obama has to say he will throw Isreal or the Palestine under the bus just like he did with the reverend Wright or his Grandmother whenever it will help him Obama is all about himself and his own ego period. Which by the way Time is doing an excellent job of feeding (suck up much)

JLPG77
JLPG77 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@RobertMccauley  

52% of the Americans. 52% no more, no less are the stupid people (I believed it was 47% but hey math is a hard topic!). Haters are going hate. I know your shares are not going to do well if there is peace over there.  I know it, you know it. Now, please.......proceed...

TanmayLololAnaisPradhan
TanmayLololAnaisPradhan

You go and you pick that one "Kordana" and you repeat her comments over and over as if she represents.... everyone.

@Karl_Vick you sure you are a journalist for Time ? Or maybe its because you are a journalist for Time.

gadflyonthewall
gadflyonthewall like.author.displayName 1 Like

The idea that the Obama would do anything to upset our relationship with the region's on open, democratic society doesn't stand discussion.  Hopefully this speech represents the eclipse of Netanyahu there and Sheldon Adelson here.

FeebWillis
FeebWillis like.author.displayName 1 Like

The issue is false.  Peace will come when both the Arabs and Jews realize they are two cultures in one country and then try to make the best of it.

ricardo_lion
ricardo_lion

@FeebWillis   But inside Israel there is peace and two cultures coexisting.  Rights for all in Israel, no civil war, hanging of gays, women stoning, "honour" killing of girls, etc.  The 1,5 million Israeli Arabs in Israel have full rights and don`t live in fear.  Gaza is judenrein and shares a border with judenrein Egypt.  The Arabs in the little of Judea and Samaria still under Israel`s control:  Disputed territory, reconquered from Jordan and not "Palestine" (a country that never existed, just the name of a region) in a defensive war.  Those are (or were...) Jordanians and no one has rights in the judenrein Muslim Arab autocratic kingdom of Jordan (given by GB to one family from Arabia) anyway.

btt1943
btt1943 like.author.displayName 1 Like

An orator is just an orator. When one always talks the talk, and not walks the talk, nothing matters. The US leader can certainly do better than that.    (mtd1943, btt1943)

ravenrdr
ravenrdr like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Hate will win out; hope has no chance against fear.  Remember the woman who refuses to consider that "they are like us. . ."    This view will prevail.

ricardo_lion
ricardo_lion like.author.displayName 1 Like

@ravenrdr   They are not like us.  Only Muslim mothers claim being happy because their sons died as "sahyds", as "martirs", as suicide / homicide terrorists killing "infidels" (non-Muslims).  More than once I heard Muslim terrorists say they value death over life.  Only Muslim terrorists get 72 virgins in a "Paradise" for killing innocent people.

ricardo_lion
ricardo_lion like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Arabs (invaders from Arabia, kicked out of Iberia and Southern Sudan recently, but not before murdering 300,000 black Christians in Darfur) already have 22 countries, 1 in Palestine, Jordan.  Another Muslim Arab bloody dictatorship or medieval kingdom?  Another exporter of terrorism?  No, thank you.

kafantaris2
kafantaris2 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

The Palestinians should finally have a state of their own.

Let's get it done and move forward.

Lucystar
Lucystar like.author.displayName 1 Like

@kafantaris2 

They have a state of their own. The UN gave it to them in 1946.  It's called Jordan.

SuhailShafi
SuhailShafi like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Obama's crocodile tears over decades of Palestinian suffering caused by land theft, ethnic cleansing, occupation and torture serves its sinister purpose of whitewashing the US's complicit role in Israeli crimes. Nobody should be fooled by Obama's call for a Palestinian state - this is a US president who made a passionate appeal AGAINST Palestinian statehood in front of the United Nations General Assembly.

MichaelJohnson
MichaelJohnson like.author.displayName 1 Like

Obama only stated that this (the U.N) was not the right avenue to form a Palestinian state.  You simply cannot just declare yourself a state.  There needs to be peace and aslo recognition from the Israeli side that Palestinian statehood is in Israel's best interest. 

Lucystar
Lucystar like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@SuhailShafi 

The "decades of Palestinian suffering" are caused by the cruelty and ineptitude of their own so-called "leaders".  The more you people rant about Israeli "crimes" the more ridiculous you look. 

smo7
smo7 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Great Recession - Ended, Health Care - Done, Fiscal Cliff - Avoided, Middle East Peace - ?  Now that would be one for the books. 

ToddWest
ToddWest like.author.displayName 1 Like

@smo7 Great Recession - lingers, Fiscal Cliff- massive, continuous debt and in front of us for a long time, Health Care - mandated buying of a product, not done nor successful in stated goals, not even active yet, Middle East Peace?  Continue to fantasize and delude yourself, there is much more to the middle east than jews, persians and palestine, I see very little of anything called peace, there shall be wars and rumors of wars....definitely is all in the Book.  Foolish little child.

JLPG77
JLPG77

@ToddWest @smo7  

You may be right. However, what exactly is our role in this dance?  What do you the U.S.A means? How many states do we have? There could be hell for all I care. In for the love of 'magic underwears' could you please leave the Book in peace? Way too many people have already died for it. Nice avatar, nevertheless.

SharonAnderson
SharonAnderson like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Was it as good as Obama's 2009 Cairo speech? That one was also going to bring peace and healing to the Middle East.

ricardo_lion
ricardo_lion like.author.displayName 1 Like

@SharonAnderson In that occasion he visited a judenrein Arab country under the rule of a ruthless dictator, but did not mention this fact, did not demand democracy.  Later he went to judenrein Saudi Arabia and bowed to the local autocratic king.