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March 25, 2013 5:33 PM Revolutionary Rhetoric?

By Ed Kilgore

The U.S. news cycle has quickly passed over Barack Obama’s trip to Israel last week, and a speech he made in Jerusalem that struck a strong chord at the time. But Israelis haven’t “moved on” from the speech, and at TAP, Gershom Gorenberg offers a considered judgment that deserves attention:

After a couple of days for careful reflection, it’s clear: Barack Obama gave an amazing speech. The president of the United States stood in a hall in Jerusalem, and with empathy and with bluntness that has been absent for so long we forgot it could exist, told Israelis: The occupation can’t go on. It’s destroying your own future. And besides that, Palestinians have “a right to … justice” and “to be a free people in their own land.”
If you don’t think this is a breakthrough, you are letting naïve pessimism overcome realism. Yes, it’s true that one speech will be worth nothing if not followed by intense American diplomacy. That comment has become banal. A realistic assessment is that Obama’s visit, and the speech, were the opening act of an American diplomatic effort—a near perfect opening….
The most direct, powerful part of the speech was when Obama said that the Palestinians’ “right to justice must also be recognized,” when he told Israelis that settlement, and roadblocks, and settler violence are unjust. No American president has dared state that stark message before an Israeli audience before—or before an American one. To underline it, he borrowed the line, “to be a free people in our land,” directly from the Israeli national anthem. “Palestinians,” he said, “have a right to be a free people in their land.” The words that define your story of yourselves, that move you even when you are tired of them and think they are kitsch, Obama suggested to Israelis, are the words that should help you empathize with Palestinians.

This approach may seem self-evident to many American liberals, but it’s been largely unstated in official statements of policy—certainly in speeches made in Israel by an American president. Obama’s strong expression of solidarity with Israel, before and during the Jerusalem speech—which some American liberals really did not like—is what made his challenge to the status quo work. We’ll soon see if the follow-up justifies Gorenberg’s optimism, or confirms the pessimism and even ennui that characterized the expectations for this presidential visit.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • dalloway on March 25, 2013 6:20 PM:

    What was even more amazing than the speech itself was the reaction of the Israeli audience, especially to the Palestinians having the right to be a free people: they didn't just applaud, they cheered. For those willing to see it, Obama managed to show the world an Israeli people far more compassionate and pragmatic than their current hard line leaders. As in America, where conservatives also dominate the discourse, the reality on the ground (settlements excepted) may be very different.

  • MuddyLee on March 25, 2013 6:21 PM:

    Liberals: Whenever you get ready to criticize President
    Obama, consider what we had before him and those who ran against him. At least there is some hope of having rational policy and government with Obama.

  • Mark-NC on March 25, 2013 7:10 PM:

    Yet another test for the Repugnant Ones. Do they love Israel more than they hate Obama.

    I'm betting on the latter!

  • bcinaz on March 25, 2013 7:21 PM:

    I detect a small pattern; on immigration, Obama deported people in record numbers and has implemented greater security on the southern boarder in order to give immigration reform space to happen.

    Half that speech in Jerusalem was all about American dedication to and support for Israel's security, Iron Dome, foreign aid etc creating space for Israel to contemplate the two state solution in real life, not just rhetoric. Unfortunately, O's partner in this enterprise is Bibi Netenyahu who is no partner at all in finding a solution to the Palestinian Question.

  • Anonymous on March 25, 2013 7:40 PM:

    dalloway,

    "What was even more amazing than the speech itself was the reaction of the Israeli audience, especially to the Palestinians having the right to be a free people: they didn't just applaud, they cheered. For those willing to see it, Obama managed to show the world an Israeli people far more compassionate and pragmatic than their current hard line leaders."

    Indeed.

    In essence, Obama told those Israeli youths that it's up to them to vote out the RightWing extremists who do not represent them:

    "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 ... Your voices must be louder than the extremists who would drown them out. Your hopes must light the way forward."

    * He also threw in a little Gandhi :]

  • Joe Friday on March 25, 2013 7:45 PM:

    ^
    Damn it. Gotta stop trying to watch the news, talk to somebody, and post at the same time.

  • gelfling545 on March 25, 2013 8:04 PM:

    Yes, it's only one speech and blah, blah, blah. The constant repetition of that is making me crazy. It's nice to see someone at least recognize the banality of this noxious little reminder that nothing this President says or does will ever be good enough. Does anyone think anything ever happens if no one ever brings it up to begin with? Should he have said nothing since he couldn't immediately bring about the results he spoke of? Bah.

  • Kathryn on March 25, 2013 8:08 PM:

    "With empathy and with bluntness", I think those words capture Pres. Barack Obama in this speech and in many other speeches. Way too many pundits and opinion writers miss that, as direct as he often is, there is a subtle quality that seems to be missed all too often. That's how I see it anyway, a wonderful assessment by Mr. Gorenberg IMO. You also have to salute the sophistication and intelligence of the Israeli audience.

  • JEA on March 25, 2013 8:36 PM:

    I've heard a lot of speeches about the Palestinians and Israelis for many years now. To think Obama has some special incantation that will make either side move from their intransigence is naive in the extreme. Or just slobbering political fan-worship.

  • square1 on March 26, 2013 7:32 AM:

    Credit where it is due. IMO, this is the first major achievement of Obama's presidency. Literally, the only thing that I can think of that isnt "good" only in relative terms when measured against what a hypothetical Republican President may have done in the same circumstances.