Obama: Like Israelis, Palestinians Have Right to Be Free on Their Land

In a speech at Adas Israel synagogue in Washington, president reaffirms 'unshakeable' commitment to Israel's security, but says two-state solution is the way to safeguard it.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Adas Israel Congregation, May 22, 2015 in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Adas Israel Congregation, May 22, 2015 in Washington, D.C. AFP

U.S. President Barack Obama said Friday that Palestinians have a right "to be a free people on their land" just like Israelis, and reiterated his support for two states living side by side "in peace and security."

In a speech at the Adas Israel synagogue in Washington, marking the Jewish American Heritage Month, Obama also spoke about his admiration– and high expectations – of the Jewish state, the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran and the Jewish American community who "helped make our union more perfect."

While he stressed the "unshakeable" American commitment to Israel's security, Obama said that he feels "a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I think will lead to long-term security and to the preservation of a true democracy in the Jewish homeland." That, he said, is "two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people on their land, as well."

Click here for a transcript of Obama's speech

On the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran, Obama said he would not accept "a bad deal." "I want a good deal - a deal that blocks every single path to a nuclear weapon. Every single path," he said.

Obama also described his ongoing differences with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as "periodic disagreements," and said that the Palestinians "are not the easiest of partners."

Jewish values, Obama said, teach him not only to fight "the scourge of anti-Semitism wherever it exists," but also "to think about a Palestinian child in Ramallah that feels trapped without opportunity."

Obama’s visit to Adas Israel coincides with the “Solidarity Sabbath,” an initiative of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice that calls on world leaders to show solidarity with victims of anti-Semitism.

Twelve members of the U.S. Congress and a number of European ambassadors will also attend synagogues on Friday and participate in other activities to show their concern about anti-Semitism.

The Lantos Foundation is named for the late Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress. Lantos, a California Democrat, was noted for his focus on human rights and chaired the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee in 2007-08.

'Criticism of settlements not anti-Jewish'

Obama's visit comes a day after he gave an extensive interview to The Atlantic, in which he talked about the new Israeli government, his relations with the American Jewish community and U.S. support for Israel.

Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg that despite the confrontations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past number of years, most of the American Jewish community still voted for him in the 2012 presidential election.

"What I also think is that there has been a very concerted effort on the part of some political forces to equate being pro-Israel, and hence being supportive of the Jewish people, with a rubber stamp on a particular set of policies coming out of the Israeli government," he said. "So if you are questioning settlement policy, that indicates you’re anti-Israeli, or that indicates you’re anti-Jewish. If you express compassion or empathy towards Palestinian youth, who are dealing with checkpoints or restrictions on their ability to travel, then you are suspect in terms of your support of Israel. If you are willing to get into public disagreements with the Israeli government, then the notion is that you are being anti-Israel, and by extension, anti-Jewish. I completely reject that."

During the Atlantic interview, Obama expressed deep concern with the direction Israel has been heading, especially in everything regarding its democratic values. Obama remarked that "precisely because" he cares so much about Israel and the Jewish people, "I feel obliged to speak honestly and truthfully about what I think will be most likely to lead to long-term security, and will best position us to continue to combat anti-Semitism, and I make no apologies for that precisely because I am secure and confident about how deeply I care about Israel and the Jewish people."

Obama told the Atlantic that he grew up on the Israel of kibbutzim, Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir, "and the sense that not only are we creating a safe Jewish homeland, but also we are remaking the world."

He recalled that these values shaped him as a politician. He said he told a group of Jewish leaders he has high expectations for Israel, which he considers neither unrealistic nor stupid.

"I want Israel, in the same way that I want the United States, to embody the Judeo-Christian and, ultimately then, what I believe are human or universal values that have led to progress over a millennium," he stressed. "The same values that led to the end of Jim Crow and slavery. The same values that led to Nelson Mandela being freed and a multiracial democracy emerging in South Africa….the same values that lead us to speak out against anti-Semitism. I want Israel to embody these values because Israel is aligned with us in that fight for what I believe to be true. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t tough choices and there aren’t compromises. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have to ask ourselves very tough questions about, in the short term, do we have to protect ourselves."