How Obama just reframed the Israel-Palestine conflict

March 21, 2013

President Obama speaks in Jerusalem. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama gave a lengthy speech in Jerusalem on Thursday, where he discussed the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The speech has been compared to his 2009 address in Cairo, both as a break from typical American rhetoric and as an appeal made directly to the people of the Middle East.

Obama's speech began with the expected points: He reiterated Israelis' connection to the land of Israel (a point he had neglected to make, to much criticism, years earlier when he explained the creation of the state as a response to the holocaust), emphasized the "unbreakable" alliance between the United States and Israel and discussed what the United States is doing to work with Israel against shared security concerns. But then he said something that was not as expected.

"But make no mistake: those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere. Today, I want to tell you – particularly the young people – that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd.

"The question, then, is what kind of future Israel will look forward to. And that brings me to the subject of peace."

This is the big set-up. Obama here is moving away from the traditional dynamic in Israel of peace-versus-security. This dynamic will almost always lead any state to privilege security first. Obama led up to this line with several paragraphs on America's support for Israel and their two countries' combined ability to defend against the very real threats in the region, helping him to frame the security of Israel's existence as a given. This, of course, is one of the reasons that U.S. support for Israel, however much it frustrates critics of Israel and its occupation, is so important.

The more credibly that the United States can guarantee Israel's security, the greater freedom that grants Israel to assume its own safety. And that gives the country space to put down the old question of "Can we survive?", which inevitably leads it to emphasize security, and start to ask, "Now that we know we have a future, what do we want that future to look like?" That's a very different conversation, which might be why Obama is aiming it at Israeli youth, who are less likely to remember the wars of 1967 and 1973.

Obama is re-framing that old issue, and his speech, as a shift away from the old debate about what Israel has to do in order to keep its state, a debate grounded in decades of war, to the conversation Obama wants to have: If the U.S. can help Israel to assume that it will keep its state, then what sort of state does it want?

The answer for Israelis, of course, is that they want a Jewish democracy. That sets up Obama to argue, as others have done, that Israel can't be Jewish and democratic if it continues to place the Palestinians under occupation.

"Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine."

Israel was founded as a Jewish democracy. Israel-watchers (yes, on the political left and right) have long warned that, as the Palestinian population grows in the West Bank, Israel is going to face a major dilemma. Either it grants those Palestinians political rights, at which point Israel will become a less and less Jewish state by dint of Jews' shrinking share of the population, or it denies them political rights, at which point it would no longer seem to be fully democratic.

"Only you can determine what kind of democracy you will have. ... There will always be a reason to avoid risk, and there’s a cost for failure. There will always be extremists who provide an excuse to not act. And there is something exhausting about endless talks about talks; the daily controversies, and grinding status quo."

Obama spends a lot of time acknowledging that Israel has made "credible proposals" for peace and that it has been frustrated by the negotiating process, but he also underscores the idea of Israeli ownership over the outcome of the peace process. Arguments that, for example, Israel lacks a "credible negotiating partner," whatever their merit, feed into narratives that Israel should wait for peace to brought to it rather than actively seek it out.

"As more governments respond to popular will, the days when Israel could seek peace with a handful of autocratic leaders are over. Peace must be made among peoples, not just governments."

Part of this argument is about citing a new impetus for seeking peace, which is new in that it's a new argument but not new in that there have always been reasons to seek peace. What's more meaningfully different here is the idea of not just negotiating with Palestinian or other Arab leaders, but in actually addressing the underlying needs and interests of Palestinian people. That's harder work, but more likely to lead to a self-sustaining 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 is the flip side of the above argument about addressing the needs of Palestinian people: that Israel's effort for peace should be driven by Israeli citizens. In this thinking, not only are negotiations more likely to encompass the needs and interests of Israelis rather than just Israeli leaders (although, in a democracy, these two are supposed to line), but they are more likely to sustain despite the inevitable setbacks. U.S. diplomacy on Israel-Palestine, and maybe U.S. diplomacy in general, has traditionally focused on state-to-state negotiations, but Obama is perhaps hoping that greater Israeli public support for peace talks are going to succeed where State Department lobbying has not.

"Look to the future that you want for your own children – a future in which a Jewish, democratic state is protected and accepted, for this time and for all time. ... There will be many voices that say this change is not possible. But remember this: Israel is the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world. Israel has the wisdom to see the world as it is, but also the courage to see the world as it should be."

Again, Obama is here attempting to refocus Israel's efforts to safeguard its own future, implying that the fight for basic security is largely won*, but that the country must now channel its self-preservation energies toward the more long-term but still existential question of whether it can remain a Jewish and democratic state while the Palestinians lack a country of their own. That's his argument and, while it's not a new one, it re-frames a very old conversation about Middle East peace in what are, for this high level of diplomacy, some very different terms.

The lingering question, as after Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo, is whether those new ideas will be followed by new actions.

* This does not mean, of course, that Israel faces no national security threats. Every country faces these, Israel especially. The idea is that the years when Israel faced the very real proposition that it might be destroyed outright are over.

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