Then Obama pivoted to talk about the need to take more risks for peace, to put aside skepticism and push for a two-state solution. He said—twice—that it was not for America to tell Israel how to shape its future, and he added that it would be easy for him to simply ignore the issue, given the bipartisan support for Israel back home. He gently chided Israel for its “isolationism” and warned of the risks of relying on Iron Dome and barriers and “turning inward.”
In the most powerful moments of his speech Obama asked Israelis to put themselves in the shoes of the Palestinians who live under Israeli control. When he said “neither occupation nor expulsion” is the answer, the crowd applauded. He went off script to remind those listening that if any Israeli parent were to sit down with the Palestinian students he had met with recently, they would have the same reaction he did: “I want these kids to succeed. I want these kids to have the same opportunities as my kids.”
The applause was thunderous.
If there was a moment of less-than-enthusiastic acceptance it may have been in Obama’s assurance that Israel has a “true partner” in Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. But he deftly quoted Ariel Sharon: “It is impossible to have a Jewish, democratic state and at the same time to control all of Eretz Israel. If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all.”
Obama urged these young people to recognize that the era of their leaders making peace with autocrats was at an end; that “peace begins not just in the plans of leaders but in the hearts of the people.” He asked the students to understand that only “empathy in the hearts of the people of this land, this sacred city” will lead to peace.
The last part of his speech was dedicated to the prosperity and ingenuity of Israel; its ten Nobel prizewinners and its role in the world economy. He chuckled at Israelis for their dedication to social media, then urged that all of Israel’s prosperity and promise “can be enhanced with greater security and lasting peace.” He closed with a thank you to the Jewish people who had infused his life with a spirit of “Tikkun Olam” – the quest to repair the world. Then he asked the audience to do their part in that project.
I asked the students around me what they thought of the speech. Most were moved and inspired by the eloquence. Even more so, they were grateful that the President had made the effort to see their neighborhood through their eyes. Obama was asking them to make that same cognitive connection with their neighbors. He was modeling how it’s done. Maybe that isn’t enough. But as he made clear, without it, there can be no start.