In 2008, the day after the elections in the United States, I traveled to Israel with a Minneapolis Jewish Federation mission group. In my Nov. 14, 2008, editorial, written after arriving in the Jewish state, I mentioned that folks in the U.S., and around the world, were excited by the election of Barack Obama as president.
As I noted then, it was “somewhat disconcerting to find that there is one group that for the most part is not excited by the Obama victory — Jews in Israel. Change we can do without, sums up the thinking of many Israelis I’ve talked to over the past few days.”
Perhaps, the Israelis had gotten used to the Texas country bumpkin, George W. Bush, and were discomfited with the new decider, who happened to be tagged with an Arabic name. And not to put too fine a point on it, he was black.
Reporting from Independence Park, behind our Jerusalem hotel, I met a man name Theo Bloomfield, a Connecticut native who had been living in Israel for 35 years. On a lovely afternoon, he was walking his dog, a Pomeranian-Welsh terrier-toy fox terrier mix named Prince Scrumptious Peanut. I asked him what was the problem with Obama.
“Big question mark,” replied Bloomfield.
That view was echoed by many Jews in Jerusalem. Perhaps some of them had caught the aroma from the nasty political season in America, which saw Obama vilified in a variety of scurrilous ways. The GOP sought to discredit his pro-Israeli bona fides in the cause of peeling some Jewish voters away from the Democratic column — this is the game that is played every four years.
In Tel Aviv, which represents the left wing of bipolar Israeli politics — with Jerusalem concentrating the conservative and ultra-Orthodox factions — I found a generally more upbeat attitude about Obama’s election.
A transformed mood
However, four years later, after Obama’s first presidential visit to Israel, the mood in Israel, vis-à-vis our commander-in-chief, has been transformed. Obama apparently had his mojo working during his March 21 speech to students at the Jerusalem Convention Center.
Early in his speech, Obama finessed the widely reported tension between him and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “Now I know that in Israel’s vibrant democracy, every word and gesture is carefully scrutinized. But just so you know, any drama between me and my friend Bibi over the years was just a plot to create material for ‘Eretz Nehederet.’ ” Obama’s reference was to Israel’s popular satirical TV show that features impersonations of political personalities (sort of like “Saturday Night Live,” with Tina Fey’s famous impersonation of Sarah Palin). The president was well briefed.
Obama’s speech wove together strands from the Passover holiday, Zionist history, and the plight of children in Sderot under attack from Gaza rocket fire. And he challenged the students to work for a peaceful resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, noting that “the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes — look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”
‘This will not be the same country’
Writing in Haaretz last week, columnist Bradley Burston said that the students in Jerusalem “roared approval for Obama’s view of security, which was hard-edged and unapologetic, and they roared approval for his vision of a two-state solution that allows Palestinians to enjoy the freedoms and self-determination Israelis know. This will not be the same country after this speech.”
He added, “Not soon. Perhaps not in many years. But this is one way that change happens. An event like this, inspiration like this, does not in the end go to waste. It gives new strength to the world-weary and the habitually trashed. It changes momentum. It creates momentum. It does good. It makes way for better.”
Burston concluded his paean to Obama by suggesting that he move to Israel in four years: “Let him run here. It’s about time we knew again what a real leader was like.”
Burston’s view was echoed by Yossi Klein Halevi, who wrote in The New Republic: “Barack Obama came to Jerusalem to win over the Israeli people, and with a single speech he did. It happened when he addressed an audience of several thousand young people in Jerusalem and delivered what may have been the most passionate Zionist speech ever given by an American president.”
However, Klein Halevi pointed out that the “least credible part” of Obama’s speech was in the effort to convince Israelis that the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, “is ready to make peace — or that the Arab Spring has created an opening for reconciliation with the Middle East. That’s hardly the reality we see emerging around us. There was something deeply unsettling, almost cruel, in trying to reawaken our suppressed hopes for normalcy — for a new Middle East, in the language of the Oslo peace process.”
The settlements issue
But Obama “did succeed,” in the commentator’s opinion, in shifting opinion in Israel against future government efforts to expand settlements in the Occupied West Bank. Klein Halevi wrote: “Obama has reminded us that, even in the absence of peace, we have a responsibility not to take steps that will make an eventual peace all the more difficult.”
Of course there were criticisms that Obama’s message to Israelis was calculated to shore up his domestic political support, especially in the influential American Jewish community. The Palestinians saw Obama’s visit mainly as an effort at fence mending with Netanyahu. And Obama’s part in the ostensible diplomatic reconciliation between Israel and Turkey seems to be unraveling, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a friend of Hamas, is now demanding that Israel dismantle the Gaza blockade. On Tuesday, Erdoğan announced that he would be visiting the Palestinian Territories, including Gaza.
Noam Sheizaf, who writes for the left-wing +972 blog (972mag.com), found that Obama offered some balm for all sides. “Still, without meaningful political actions, this was an empty effort,” wrote Sheizaf. “Everybody in Israel can be happy with the president’s speech: the Left heard all those niceties regarding peace, while the Right proved that the occupation has no cost, that the rift with the U.S. doesn’t exist and that denying the Palestinians their freedom is sustainable policy. At the end of the day, Netanyahu’s confrontational attitude has humbled the U.S. president and changed both his tactics and his goals on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The prime minister paid a price for his politics, no doubt — seeing the president talking to Israelis over his head was surely unpleasant, and could further diminish his popularity — but Netanyahu was nevertheless able to maintain the status quo on the Palestinian issue, which is both something he believes in, and the key to his political survival.”
When I travel to Israel in June, the occupation of the West Bank will have entered its 47th year. So I will ask Israelis and Palestinians how this unsustainable situation might be resolved. We have to look toward a future with hope.
Mordecai Specktor is the editor of The American Jewish World, where this editorial first appeared. Republished with permission.
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