Reaction was mixed in Israel to the public statements made by President Barack Obama during his visit, with some embracing Obama’s appeal for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and others voicing skepticism about the practicality of the goals he articulated.
“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,” Obama told a packed audience of young Israelis at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on Thursday, March 21.
“There is no question that Israel has faced Palestinian factions who turned to terror, and leaders who missed historic opportunities. That is why security must be at the center of any agreement,” Obama said. “And there is no question that the only path to peace is through negotiation.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Obama “for the unreserved support of the State of Israel.”
“The prime minister agrees with the president that we have to advance a peace that ensures the security of Israeli citizens. The prime minister also agrees that we have a wonderful country,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.
Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) disagreed with Obama over the need for two states for two peoples.
“His remarks certainly came from a place of concern for Israel and true friendship,” Bennett wrote on his Facebook wall. “But the results of our previous withdrawal were felt this morning in Sderot [a rocket from Gaza damaged a Sderot home] and in the thousands of victims in recent years. A Palestinian state is not the right path. … For the attention of [Secretary of State] John Kerry, Bennett’s diplomatic worldview has not changed because of Obama’s speech.
“Besides,” Bennett added, “a nation cannot occupy its own land.”
Habayit Hayehudi’s faction chairwoman MK Ayelet Shaked said, “If we are talking about Iron Dome, then Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) are our Iron Dome. There is no doubt that Obama is a real friend of Israel. But it will be we who have to face the disastrous and catastrophic consequences of the establishment Palestinian state. It is no wonder that the Israeli public chose, only this past week, a government that does not have the idea of the establishment of a Palestinian state in its coalition guidelines.”
“The president’s speech was warm and embracing, but at the same time he tried to create the illusion of a public that supports steps that are dangerous for Israel,” the Yesha Council said in a statement.
A former head of the Yesha Council, Danny Dayan, Tweeted on Friday that he was surprised at how naive Obama was. “Not even an American president can revive a corpse. The two-state solution is a corpse,” Dayan said.
But not everyone shared Dayan’s pessimism. “Obama’s speech was very important and inspiring,” said Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah). “It is our job to implement his Zionist vision.”
“Obama wanted to speak directly to the young people of Israel, and they should take his words about pressuring Israel’s leaders as an order and not a recommendation,” said Member of Knesset Itzik Shmuli (Labor).
“The president’s speech matched my worldview,” said Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On. “He spoke from the heart and entered peoples’ hearts.”
In Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, dozens of Israelis watched Obama’s speech on a giant screen, in an event organized by the Peace Now movement.
Even before Obama left the country, pundits were trying to summarize the visit and assess what would be the takeaway for Israel. Analysts agreed that it was a great achievement for Israel that Obama told the Palestinians there should be no preconditions and no freeze of construction beyond the Green Line for peace talks to resume, and that Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The fact that the American president refrained from setting a timetable for the negotiations was also perceived as an achievement.
“If the core issues are solved of sovereignty and security the settlement issue will be solved,” Obama said in Ramallah on Thursday.
On the question of Iran, analysts agreed that Israel had several reason to be pleased: First, Obama made it clear that Israel has the right to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. Second, the president said that Israel could rely on the U.S., which would not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. Third, Obama said that continued talks with Iran were not unlimited in time, stressing that “all options are on the table,” and that the U.S. was willing to make good on that threat.
“We do not have a policy of containment when it comes to a nuclear Iran,” Obama said, Wednesday during a press conference with Netanyahu. “Our policy is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
Yet, the differences between Obama and Netanyahu on Iran remained apparent during that press conference. The Obama administration has so far resisted the prime minister’s calls to set a “red line,” a point that, if crossed by Iran’s nuclear program, would prompt U.S. military action against the Islamic Republic.
“We prefer to resolve this diplomatically, and there is still time to do so,” Obama said Wednesday.
Netanyahu expressed his appreciation for the fact that Obama has “acted to thwart this [Iranian] threat, both through determined diplomacy and strong sanctions that are getting stronger yet,” but noted that those efforts have not changed Iran’s behavior.
“Notwithstanding our joint efforts and your great success in mobilizing the international community, diplomacy and sanctions so far have not stopped Iran’s nuclear program,” Netanyahu said.
Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi, who is considered close to Netanyahu, and who also serves on the influential Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said Friday that “there was doubt” about America’s commitment to stop Iran from going nuclear.
Speaking on Israel Radio, Hanegbi said, “American presidents in the past have made stern statements regarding North Korea, but that at the moment of truth the Americans balked.” The outcome, Hanegbi said, “is known to all.”
(This story first appeared in Israel Hayom and is distributed with the permission of that newspaper.)