Obama speech leaves Israel in no doubt what he thinks about Netanyahu
Sometimes you need someone from the outside, someone like Obama, to tell it like it is: Israelis, you've got a great country, but you've got to stop the occupation.
Sometimes it takes someone from the outside, like U.S. President Barack Obama, to show up and tell it like it is to the Israelis: You've got a wonderful country, you're wise and just, you suffered and you deserve a state, and as long as the United States exists you'll never stand alone – but for God's sake, enough! Stop the settlements, stop the occupation, stop the deportations, stop the ongoing abuse of the Palestinians, and stop the settlers' violence. Enough.
At the Jerusalem International Convention Center, speaking Thursday to a young and sympathetic audience that was vetted with care, Obama delivered what was essentially a State of the Union speech for Israel. He tried to build a collective consciousness, a narrative. Like an experienced masseuse, he oiled and caressed his customers, massaging the national ego from every possible angle. Like an enthusiastic suitor, he didn't miss a single soft spot, covering Osher Twito, the Sderot boy whose leg was amputated at the age of 8 because of injuries sustained during a rocket attack in 2008; the Iron Dome missile defense system; the July bus bombing in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists; and the Holocaust, kibbutzim and startups.
But the heart of his speech was cold and sharp: "Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land." Obama called on his audience to rise and bring forth the change he envisions, to push Israel's leaders toward dialogue with the Palestinians, toward an end to Israeli rule over the West Bank and toward the two-state solution.
All in all, Obama laid out the U.S. policy on Israel over the next four years. He left no doubt as to how he really feels about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yes, he referred to him by his nickname again, but it was in the context of a popular sketch comedy that satirizes Israeli politics ("But just so you know," Obama said, "any drama between me and my friend Bibi over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehederet.") On the other hand, when Obama mentioned former prime ministers like David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, he spoke about them with dignity and respect.
Suddenly it all made sense. The hugs and the jokes, the jacket slung over the shoulder and the kisses to Sara, were all put in their true perspective. Obama is undoubtedly pro-Israel, no less than his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were. But he is no blind follower of the Israeli government, or of the schtick Netanyahu regularly pulls in an effort to stall for time, again and again. And the president came not to visit his pal Bibi, but to visit the State of Israel (as well as President Shimon Peres, who doubtless agreed with every word of Obama's speech).
The Jerusalem speech also made it clear why, during the reception at the airport the day before, Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid received slightly more attention that the other ministers in the endless line of VIPs. Livni has already proved that she is interested in pursuing negotiations with the Palestinians. And while it is still too early to tell where Lapid's loyalties lie – with the peace process or with his partner on the right, Naftali Bennett – apparently Obama, at least, thinks there might be reason to hope.