‘You must create the change that you want to see’

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When it comes to U.S. policy in the Middle East, President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem today will probably be a subject of analysis, discussion, and scrutiny for quite a while.

It was significant enough when Obama made the case for “two states for two peoples,” urging Israelis to put themselves in the shoes of Palestinians and recognize their “right to self-determination, their right to justice.” But it was just as striking when he went off-script.

Breaking off from his prepared text, he said that he recently met with a group of young Palestinians.

“Talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters, they weren’t that different from your daughters or sons,” he said.

“I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with these kids, they’d say, ‘I want these kids to succeed, I want them to prosper, I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do,’” he added to applause.

There were, to be sure, plenty of cliches, but the president also used some provocative phrases, noting for example that “neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer” towards a lasting peace. Obama added:

“There will be differences about how to get there. There are going to be hard choices along the way. Arab states must adapt to a world that has changed. The days when they could condemn Israel to distract their people from a lack of opportunity, or government corruption or mismanagement – those days need to be over. Now is the time for the Arab world to take steps toward normalizing relations with Israel.

“Meanwhile, Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security. Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable with real borders that have to be drawn.”

This is rather direct language for anyone to use in the context of the Middle East, but for a U.S. president to say this in Israel – to applause, no less – was an important development.

Obama went out of his way to reinforce U.S. support for Israel and celebrate the alliance the president called “eternal.” But he also challenged Israel: “You must create the change that you want to see.”

“[T]oday, Israel is at a crossroads. It can be tempting to put aside the frustrations and sacrifices that come with the pursuit of peace, particularly when Iron Dome repels rockets, barriers keep out suicide bombers. There’s so many other pressing issues that demand your attention. And I know that only Israelis can make the fundamental decisions about your country’s future. I recognize that.

“I also know, by the way, that not everyone in this hall will agree with what I have to say about peace. I recognize that there are those who are not simply skeptical about peace, but question its underlying premise, have a different vision for Israel’s future. And that’s part of a democracy. That’s part of the discourse between our two countries. I recognize that. But I also believe it’s important to be open and honest, especially with your friends.”

He added, “I believe that peace is the only path to true security. You have the opportunity to be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future.”

The message wasn’t subtle: fairness demands a Palestinian state, but this is just as much about Israel’s own future.

If the goal was for Obama to lay the groundwork for a constructive way forward on the peace process, the speech did what it set out to do. That doesn’t mean the president will necessarily be successful in getting the process to advance – a well-received speech can only do so much – but it does mean Obama pointed the way forward.

Foreign Policy, Israel and Barack Obama

'You must create the change that you want to see'

Updated