Much has already been written about President Obama’s recent visit to Israel, both before and after his trip. Could he repair his relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu? Could he connect with the Israeli people? Could he bring Netanyahu and President Abbas closer together?
We focus our attention on the most dramatic aspect of President Obama’s visit: his historic address at the Convention Center in Jerusalem to both Jewish and Arab university students from around the country. Obama chose this audience because of his faith in the power of young people to determine their future, their children’s future and the future of their country.
Arguments abound that challenge the possibilities for peace: that there’s no partner; that Palestinians don’t really want to live peacefully in a state of their own, next to Israel; that the Arab spring has rendered the region too unstable to move forward. However, President Obama appealed to the hopeful nature of young people to dream of a better world. He expressed empathy and compassion for the persecution of Jews historically and for the terrorism that Israelis have experienced over the years. He then challenged the students directly: “Put yourself in their (the Palestinians’) shoes. Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements, not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. …..Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”
He spoke to the young people’s conscience. “You must create the change that you want to see”…. “Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks….Peace begins not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people; in the daily connections, that sense of empathy that takes place among those who live together in this land and in this sacred city of Jerusalem.”
Obama’s decision to appeal to the younger generation of Israel was a way to elevate the discussion about peace above the typical rancor of their leaders. Obama seized this opportunity to recognize and to empower young people with the spirit and the hope to effect change.
Together with his charge to the younger generation, President Obama affirmed the United State’s commitment to Israel’s security and called attention to the existential threat to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic homeland posed by the lack of a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinians conflict. He stressed that military solutions alone will not end the conflict and that Israel will only find true security when it negotiates peace with its genuine partner, the Palestinian Authority.
The long-term impact of Obama’s speech will depend upon Secretary of State John Kerry’s serious attention to a sustained diplomatic initiative. It also depends upon the American Jewish community to demonstrate to President Obama and our Congress members and Senators that we strongly support and expect US engagement to help Israel and the Palestinians to resolve this conflict. Clearly, it also depends upon Israelis to demand from their political leaders to take the necessary risks for peace.
(Nancy Bernstein and Malke Frank are co-chairs of J Street-Pittsburgh.)