“The question is whether there can be real peace here,” said Tzachi Shickman, a Hebrew University student who attended Obama’s centerpiece speech Thursday at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. “A Palestinian state could bring more attacks on us.”
Shickman’s ambivalence captures in microcosm the mix of hope and skepticism left behind by Obama’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, his first as president. The trip concluded Saturday here in Jordan, where he visited the ancient rose-colored city of Petra, carved into the cliff sides of the country’s south.
Obama’s words often have stirred even skeptical foreign audiences, as they did during his June 2009 speech in Cairo.
That address, though, still sits
at the center of his uneasy relationship with Israel
, which he used this trip to try to repair. He pledged new funding for Israeli antimissile systems, reiterated his promise to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and told Jews in a stilted if heartfelt Hebrew, “You are not alone.”
In a series of symbolic visits, Obama also celebrated the ancient Jewish connection to the land that now comprises its modern state. The acknowledgment served as a precursor to his unequivocal defense of Palestinian rights to dignity, freedom and statehood — words that brought a mostly young Israeli audience to its feet.
Obama must now transform the lingering doubts of students such as Shickman into a publicly supported Israeli-Palestinian peace process, one that will require both sides to sacrifice historically contested land and legal claims.
“No single step is going to erase years of history and propaganda,” Obama noted. “But progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin, while sidelining extremists who thrive on conflict and thrive on division. It will make a difference.”
A deeply suspicious Israeli public, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared to receive Obama warmly throughout much of his visit, a tribute to the president’s skills in public diplomacy, if not always in the art of negotiation.
But Obama’s overall message here reflected a shift in his thinking about the best way to pursue a final resolution to the issues of borders, Palestinian refugee claims and the division of Jerusalem, which both peoples view as their capital. His first effort, initially more focused on pressuring Israel, ended unsuccessfully, even becoming a 2012 campaign issue.