In a speech before some 600 university students in Jerusalem, President Obama in his first trip to Israel since assuming office elicited cheers and long stretches of applause as he spoke of unwavering support for a secure Israel and Palestinian statehood in an attempt to re-start a lukewarm relationship with the citizens of America’s closest ally in the Middle East.
“What I’ve most looked forward to is the ability to speak directly to you,” Obama told the crowd Thursday, after a morning of meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas and meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres Wednesday.
“I know that in Israel’s vibrant democracy, every word, every gesture is carefully scrutinized. But I want to clear something up 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 said, referencing a satirical Israeli television show and his much-criticized relationship with Netanyahu, which he once described as “business-like.” Yet in a press conference Wednesday, both leaders warmly shared jokes and referred to each other by their first names.
Obama also joked about a heckler interrupting his speech Thursday, squinting into the audience and saying, “I have to say we actually arranged for that because it made me feel at home. I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I didn’t have at least one heckler” while laughing.
In the more than forty minute speech, Obama staunchly defended Israeli statehood, drawing the biggest applause when he told the crowd, “Make no mistake: those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere. Today, I want to tell you–particularly the young people, so that there’s no mistake here - so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd. You are not alone.”
President Obama’s speech Thursday worked to better his standing among Israelis, which fell during his first term amid criticism for failing to visit during the first four years of his presidency. After he opted instead to speak about the two-state solution during a 2009 speech in Cairo, many Israelis voiced disappointment over a lack of results.
Obama acknowledged the 2009 Cairo speech and made a renewed push for a two-state solution in Thursday’s address, drawing a parallel between the Egyptian university students he met four years ago and the students before him at the Jerusalem Convention Center, saying, “The things [young Egyptians] want–they’re not so different from what young people here want. They want the ability to make their own decisions and to get an education; get a good job; to worship God in their own way; to get married; to raise a family. The same is true of those young Palestinians that I met with this morning. The same is true for young Palestinians who yearn for a better life in Gaza.”
In an off-script moment, Obama reflected on his Thursday morning tour through Ramallah, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. “Before I came here, I met with a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22,” Obama said, “and talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons. I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, ‘I want these kids to succeed,’” Obama said to applause. “’I want them to prosper. I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do.’ I believe that’s what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had the chance to listen with them and talk to them.”