Note: From time to time, The Fact Checker writes an analytical look at political or diplomatic language, rather than a traditional “fact check,” based on his experience in covering Washington and diplomacy. This is one of those columns.


President Obama gave a major speech in Israel on Thursday, intending to reframe his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. As we have noted before, the president’s efforts in the region have suffered setbacks, sometimes self-inflicted. At the moment, prospects for sustained peace negotiations are dismal.

In 2008, President George W. Bush also gave a major speech in Israel — when his administration was engaged in serious but ultimately unsuccessful negotiations. In many ways, the two speeches are very similar — almost as if Obama’s speechwriters had studied Bush’s speech — but there are also some important differences.

Obama, meanwhile, tweaked some of his language on the conflict, tilting toward Israel in potentially significant ways.




Mention of Harry Truman’s almost instant recognition of Israel

 “Eleven minutes later, on the orders of President Harry Truman, the United States was proud to be the first nation to recognize Israel's independence. And on this landmark anniversary, America is proud to be Israel's closest ally and best friend in the world.”

— Bush

“Every step of the way, Israel has built unbreakable bonds of friendship with the United States of America.Those ties began only 11 minutes after Israeli independence, when the United States was the first nation to recognize the State of Israel. As President Truman said in explaining his decision to recognize Israel, ‘I believe it has a glorious future before it not just as another sovereign nation, but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization’”

— Obama

It did take just 11 minutes for Truman to issue a statement recognizing Israel after the declaration was made in Jerusalem. Few people remember that Truman took this step over the vehement opposition of his revered secretary of state, George C. Marshall. The president issued the statement without informing State Department diplomats at the United Nations.


Acknowledgment of Jewish suffering through the ages

 “Centuries of suffering and sacrifice would pass before this dream was fulfilled. The Jewish people endured the agony of the pogroms, the tragedy of the Great War, and the horror of the Holocaust — what Elie Wiesel called ‘the kingdom of the night.’ Soulless men took away lives and broke apart families.”

— Bush

 “For the Jewish people, the journey to the promise of the State of Israel wound through countless generations. It involved centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice, pogroms and even genocide.”

— Obama

Throughout his trip, Obama has tried to make amends for an early misstep in his presidency, when during his 2009 speech in Cairo, Israelis believed he linked the creation of Israel to the Holocaust, which goes against the Zionist account that Jews have always been a part of the Middle East.


Swipe at the United Nations

 “We believe that democracy is the only way to ensure human rights. So we consider it a source of shame that the United Nations routinely passes more human rights resolutions against the freest democracy in the Middle East than any other nation in the world.”

— Bush

 “There is no question that the only path to peace is through negotiation. That is why, despite the criticism we've received, the United States will oppose unilateral efforts to bypass negotiations through the United Nations.”

— Obama

 Bush’s reference, of course, has a harder edge.


Admiration of Israel’s role as global leader in innovation

 “When Americans look at Israel, we see a pioneer spirit that worked an agricultural miracle and now leads a high-tech revolution. We see world-class universities and a global leader in business, innovation, and the arts. And we see a resource more valuable than oil or gold — the talent and determination of a free people who refuse to let any obstacle stand in the way of their destiny.”

— Bush

 “Through talent and hard work, Israelis have put this small country at the forefront of the global economy. Israelis understand the value of education, and have produced 10 Nobel laureates. Israelis understand the power of invention, and your universities educate engineers and inventors. That spirit has led to economic growth and human progress: solar power and electric cars; bandages and prosthetic limbs that save lives; stem cell research and new drugs that treat disease; cellphones and computer technology that change the way we live.”

— Obama

This always wins applause.


Denouncing Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran

“That is why the founding charter of Hamas calls for the ‘elimination’ of Israel. That is why the followers of Hezbollah chant ‘Death to Israel, Death to America!’ That is why Osama bin Laden teaches that ‘the killing of Jews and Americans is one of the biggest duties.’ And that is why the president of Iran dreams of returning the Middle East to the Middle Ages and calls for Israel to be wiped off the map.... Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas will be defeated, as Muslims across the region recognize the emptiness of the terrorists' vision and the injustice of their cause.”

— Bush

“That's why Israel has a right to expect Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.... That's why every country that values justice should call Hezbollah what it truly is — a terrorist organization. Because the world cannot tolerate an organization that murders innocent civilians, stockpiles rockets to shoot at cities, and supports the massacre of men, women and children in Syria.... When I consider Israel's security, I also think about a people who have a living memory of the Holocaust, faced with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iranian government that has called for Israel's destruction.”

— Obama

In one notable distinction, Obama leaves the door open a bit for Hamas to reform itself and engage in peace talks, whereas Bush simply lumped the militant group, which now controls Gaza, together with al-Qaeda and Hezbollah as entities that would be defeated. Regarding Iran’s desire to “wipe Israel off the map,” we have previously noted that there are questions about the translation and context in which Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made that statement.


Pledge that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon

“Permitting the world's leading sponsor of terror to possess the world's deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations. For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”

— Bush

“I have made the position of the United States of America clear: Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained. As president, I have said to the world that all options are on the table for achieving our objectives. America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.”

— Obama

In some ways, Obama’s statement is stronger. He places the burden on himself and the United States to prevent Iran from getting nukes, whereas Bush said it was up to the world. Obama, of course, has set the long-term goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons — a stance that helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize — and so any crumbling of the nonproliferation regime on his watch would be a personal setback. Some analysts believe this dynamic means he would be willing to attack Iran if diplomatic efforts failed.


Pledge that the United States has Israel’s back

 “Some people suggest that if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away. This is a tired argument that buys into the propaganda of our enemies, and America rejects it utterly. Israel's population may be just over 7 million. But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong, because America stands with you.”

— Bush

“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, Atem lo levad, you are not alone.”

— Obama

Both presidents essentially commit the might of the United States to protect Israel.


 Relations with Arab World

“This fundamental insight, that freedom yields peace, is the great lesson of the 20th century. Now our task is to apply it in the 21st. Nowhere is this work more urgent than here in the Middle East. We must stand with the reformers working to break the old patterns of tyranny and despair. We must give voice to the millions of ordinary people who dream of a better life in freedom. We must confront the moral relativism that views all forms of government as equally acceptable and thereby consigns whole societies to slavery. Above all, we must have faith in our values and ourselves and confidently pursue the expansion of liberty as the path to a peaceful future.”

— Bush

“This truth is more pronounced given the changes sweeping the Arab World. I recognize that with the uncertainty in the region -- people in the streets, changes in leadership, the rise of non-secular parties in politics --it is tempting to turn inward. But this is precisely the time to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve for peace. 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. No one step can change overnight what lies in the hearts and minds of millions.”

— Obama

Bush’s speech was made before the Arab Spring and its messy outcome, so his vision was much more hopeful. Israeli leaders were always suspicious of Bush’s desire to promote democracy in the Middle East, believing that popularly elected leaders would be less likely to maintain friendly relations with Israel. Obama tries to make the case that Israel now has a more pressing need to show progress on ending the conflict with the Palestinians precisely because those elected leaders may be swayed by popular passions.


The way ahead

Perhaps because Bush was in the midst of peace talks, he devoted little of his speech to the peace process — except for a rosy vision of what the Middle East would look like in six decades.

But Obama’s speech had a long section in which he laid out three reasons for why Israel should renew peace talks: peace is “necessary” because it provides “true security;” peace is “just;” and peace is “possible.” Within that formula, he made a few shifts in diplomatic language that are worth noting:

“You made credible proposals to the Palestinians at Annapolis.  You withdrew from Gaza and Lebanon, and then faced terror and rockets.”

Obama here casts Israeli actions on peace in the best possible light, and suggests that Palestinians have failed to respond positively. Obama, in fact, later makes that explicit: “There is no question that Israel has faced Palestinian factions who turned to terror, leaders who missed historic opportunities.” While Obama also decried some Israeli occupation tactics, his language signals a subtle shift in which he places more of the the burden on Palestinian leaders for having missed chances to forge a state.

“I’ve suggested principles on territory and security that I believe can be the basis for these talks. But for the moment, put aside the plans and the process.”

Here, Obama briefly acknowledges his controversial statement about starting talks based on the de facto border that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War — a policy announcement that infuriated the Israeli government — but he does not restate his position. In diplomatic terms, that is significant because it suggests he is no longer wedded to that formula.

“Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security.”

While Obama has routinely referred to Israel as a “Jewish state” — The Fact Checker once traced the history of this diplomatic term of art — here the president explicitly accepts Israel’s demand that the Palestinians must acknowledge this fact as part of peace negotiations. Palestinian officials have long rejected this proposal, because they believe it eliminates any possibility that at least some Palestinian refugees might return to Israel.

 “Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace.”

This is quite possibly the weakest statement on Israeli settlements that Obama has made in a presidential speech. It is a far cry from his phrasing in the 2009 Cairo speech: “We continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”


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