U.S. President Barack Obama brought the Palestinian issue and the occupation of the West Bank squarely back to the center stage of Israeli discourse Thursday. In his speech at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, he addressed the issue that was so profoundly absent from the recent elections, forgotten or perhaps rendered forgotten while the newly minted Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Naftali Bennett was talking about housing prices, and while now-Finance Minister Yair Lapid focused on drafting the ultra-Orthodox and funding yeshivas.
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Obama’s speech was chilling. It was a combination of a warm embrace and a punch in the gut − simultaneously inspiring and depressing. He touched all the right Israeli chords, reached out to all the audiences. An absolute majority of Israelis could see themselves in some part of his speech. Whether you agreed or not, you could not remain indifferent.
Obama took this opportunity to show Israelis how well he knows them. He talked about Jewish heritage (from Moses to the Dead Sea Scrolls), Zionist history (Ben-Gurion, Begin, Rabin and Sharon), Israeli culture (from author David Grossman to the TV show “Eretz Nehederet”).
He explained how clearly he understood the impossible security situation Israelis live with every day. He mentioned Osher Twito, who was badly injured by a Hamas rocket from Gaza, and the Israeli tourists believed to have been killed by Hezbollah in Bulgaria.
Above all, he spoke of the Iranian nuclear program and linked it to the horror of the Holocaust, still so salient to so many Israelis. He said he would do everything possible to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, that as long there is a United States, Israel will not be alone.
But Obama also tried to convince Israelis − if only for a moment − to shake their paranoia and their fears. To remind them of what they sometimes forget, that they have a vibrant democracy, that they are a regional military and economic power and that they have the strongest ally in the world. Only Israelis who feel this way will be prepared to take a chance for peace and to break from the status quo − so warm, so comfortable, and yet so dangerous.
Above all, Obama told the truth. He reminded Israelis that despite all their achievements and their desire to move on and tackle other issues, the conflict with the Palestinians was and is a millstone around their necks.
He called on them to open their eyes and see what is happening five minutes from Kfar Sava. To put themselves in the shoes of the Palestinians, who deserve justice and independence.
He explained to the Israelis that they won’t be able to hide forever behind high walls and Iron Domes. That only the establishment of a Palestinian state will ensure the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
His message to the Israeli public was that even if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to further the peace process, he is afraid. He is held in thrall by a coalition and by political calculations. He is a hostage of MKs Avigdor Lieberman and Bennett.
For a moment, in his speech, Obama was the Daphni Leef of the peace process. He pitched a tent in the square, like this magnetizing social activist did in Tel Aviv during the social-justice protests of 2011. The only question is whether the Israelis will get on board in this most crucial matter and take to the streets en masse the way they did over rent prices and the cost of cottage cheese. If they do, Netanyahu will be forced to emerge from his torpor and take serious steps toward an end to the occupation.