President Obama has finally announced he will be traveling to Israel this spring. Let us hope his itinerary doesn’t say he will visit “Israel and Jerusalem.”

He will need to give speeches there. For reference, his speechwriters would do well to take a look at President George W. Bush’s 2008 speech to the Knesset, maybe the greatest speech by a U.S. president given in or about Israel. Granted times have changed since 2008. The Israelis and Palestinians were negotiating under Bush, unlike now. Bush and the Israeli prime ministers did not feud in public, unlike Obama’s relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the speech was extraordinary and is nevertheless quite relevant. What made it so special?

President George W. Bush with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008-Sebastian Scheiner /Associated Press

First, Bush repudiated the erroneous notion (which Obama mouthed in his Cairo speech) that Israel’s existence is only a result of the Holocaust. He recalled the founding of Israel in 1948: “What followed was more than the establishment of a new country. It was the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham, Moses, and David – a homeland for the chosen people in Eretz Yisrael.” You can’t get much clearer than that — both in affirming Israel’s continued existence and in rejecting challenges to the “Jewish” identity of the state of Israel (e.g. no right of return for Palestinians).

Then there was a recitation of history often left out by those impatient with Israel’s refusal to lie down and die. “Yet in spite of the violence, in defiance of the threats, Israel has built a thriving democracy in the heart of the Holy Land. You have welcomed immigrants from the four corners of the Earth. You have forged a free and modern society based on a love of liberty, a passion for justice, and a respect for human dignity. You have worked tirelessly for peace. And you have fought valiantly for freedom.” No, Mr. Carter, it’s not an “apartheid state” and, yes, Israel has been the party working for peace. (You will recall Obama in Cairo short-circuited all that history, as if Israel had never offered the Palestinians their own state.)

Bush also defended Israel, whose legitimacy is constantly attacked, as a state entitled to forge its own destiny and to afford its citizens a normal life. (“We believe in the matchless value of every man, woman, and child. So we insist that the people of Israel have the right to a decent, normal, and peaceful life, just like the citizens of every other nation.”) No moral equivalence. No talk about “proportionate” responses to violence. He asserted:

We believe that targeting innocent lives to achieve political objectives is always and everywhere wrong. So we stand together against terror and extremism, and we will never let down our guard or lose our resolve.


The fight against terror and extremism is the defining challenge of our time. It is more than a clash of arms. It is a clash of visions, a great ideological struggle. On one side are those who defend the ideals of justice and dignity with the power of reason and truth. On the other side are those who pursue a narrow vision of cruelty and control by committing murder, inciting fear, and spreading lies.

And then Bush made very clear that the nature of Palestinian society would determine its emergence as a recognized state and its contours. He declared, as he expanded his argument to the entire Middle East: “Leaders who are accountable to their people will not pursue endless confrontation and bloodshed. Young people with a place in their society and a voice in their future are less likely to search for meaning in radicalism. And societies where citizens can express their conscience and worship their God will not export violence, they will be partners for peace. . . .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.”

He rejected the notion that Israel must be forced to negotiate with terrorists. ( “Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. . . We have an obligation to call this what it is – the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”) In words even more pertinent today as Fatah and Hamas are joined in a unity government, he explained why Hamas is not a legitimate negotiating party and why  Israel and the United States are joined at the hip, most especially in a war against an enemy that Bush had no problem calling by its real name:

The killers claim the mantle of Islam, but they are not religious men. No one who prays to the God of Abraham could strap a suicide vest to an innocent child, or blow up guiltless guests at a Passover Seder, or fly planes into office buildings filled with unsuspecting workers. In truth, the men who carry out these savage acts serve no higher goal than their own desire for power. They accept no God before themselves. And they reserve a special hatred for the most ardent defenders of liberty, including Americans and Israelis.

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. . . . America stands with you in breaking up terrorist networks and denying the extremists sanctuary. And America stands with you in firmly opposing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. 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.

What you didn’t hear was a single word about settlements. Under Bush they were a non-issue and the Palestinians negotiated during and after building periods. What you didn’t hear was any hint that Israel doesn’t know what is best for it. What you didn’t hear was the idea, one that Chuck Hagel was fond of pronouncing, that Israel is the source of the region’s problems (“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.”)

I quote the speech at length not only because it was one of the best of Bush’s presidency and not only because it addresses so many misnomers and misunderstandings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; I go back to it as a primer on how badly off track our relationship with both the Palestinians and Israelis has gotten. Obama, who plainly has been the maker of Israel policy, misunderstood the parties and their history and motivations, so much so that failure of his policy was inevitable.

It really was the case that closeness to Israel made it more willing to take risks and that moral clarity helped prevent attacks on Israel’s legitimacy. (When the United States is wishy-washy the Europeans and everyone else have no problem joining in the bash-Israel activities.) Unfortunately Obama will not give a speech like Bush’s, for to do so would be an admission that his entire approach to the region has been wrongheaded. And that’s never going to happen.