Thursday, September 22, 2011

Obama tells Israelis what they’ve been waiting to hear - No wedge between Israel and the US

(HERB KEINON-Jpost).It took some 34 months, but on Wednesday at the UN Israel finally heard the speech it wanted to hear from US President Barack Obama.

Gone were so many elements of previous Obama speeches on the Middle East that rankled so many Israelis, and left a taste in many people's mouths that here was a president who simply did not get us; who did not understand our history, our daily reality, or our fears.

This was a speech in which the US president, speaking to the world, gave context to words that other world leaders will undoubtedly spew out over the next two days from the UN podium about Palestinian degradations and humiliations, about the evils of Israeli checkpoints and security barriers and defensive actions.

“Let us be honest with ourselves: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it,” Obama said. “Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and fresh memories of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they are. Those are facts. They cannot be denied.”

That was a dose of empathy and understanding that goes a long way toward explaining much of Israeli policy, past and present. Looked through this prism, the security barrier isn’t a land grab, and Operation Cast Lead was not just another opportunity by a blood-thirsty people to persecute the Palestinians.

This was a dose of empathy and understanding Obama had not articulated strongly in the past. Had he mouthed these words during the first few months of his presidency, much of the tension in the US-Israeli relationship over the past twoand- a-half years could have been avoided.

Speaking to a body often obsessed with the difficult reality under which the Palestinians live, Obama urged the UN to consider the Israeli reality as well.

Obama did not jettison his desire to see a Palestinian state, he just gave articulate expression to the truth that it will only come about through talks. In the early days of the Obama tenure, when the president harped on the settlement issue, he created the impression that the US believed that if the settlements were just halted, then the Arab world would pitch in and take steps toward Israel, and everything else would fall into place.

On Wednesday, he acknowledged that there were no shortcuts, period. No magic formulas, no silver bullets.

He even spoke – although not directly – of something not often mentioned publicly by world leaders: of the need for the Palestinians to compromise as well.

Cynics will argue that Obama doesn’t mean it, that he is just mouthing the words – pandering to the Jews, worried about reelection, recalibrating his message after a Democrat was roundly defeated by a Republican in a heavily Jewish congressional district that the Republicans have not represented in nearly 90 years.

No one can read into his heart, but the words – at this time, at that forum, in the matter in which they were expressed – do matter.

At the UN podium on Wednesday, Obama sent a message – whatever the reasons for that message may have been – that between Israel and the US there will be no wedge. And that is not an insignificant message.