Analysis | 'Peace Is the Only Path to True Security' |

Obama's Speech: What Young Israelis Not Only Needed but Wanted to Hear

The U.S. president's speech in Jerusalem redefines what it means to be a centrist in Israel. We deserve a leader like him.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

For Barack Obama to come to Jerusalem, and speak to Israeli students and talk persuasively of the possibility of a secure and peaceful future, for him to do that and garner a roaring ovation of approval, he would have to have given one hell of a speech.

He did.

This was the speech that these young Israelis not only needed but wanted to hear. A speech that radically redefined centrism in Israel, bringing it down to extraordinary common denominators in directions Israelis have learned to think of as diametrically opposed.

He spoke of security and peace as inextricably and necessarily linked, not a narrow choice between options, but a conscious choice for both.

They roared.

This was not the student crowd that Obama is used to. These students are Israelis. This is a crowd that is world-weary, hair-trigger volatile. They have come by it honestly. In comparison to their American counterparts, they are, by and large, older by several years – some would say, several lifetimes. They enter college after years in the military, often followed by the escape-valve rehab of a marathon trek to remote continents.

They know a snow job when they hear it. And the rare times when someone makes a sincere and enormous effort to understand them, to see things from their point of view, and to bring them a message that no leader in Israel has managed to bring them, they know that too. And if they respond with a huge reservoir of unaddressed, pent up emotional energy, as they did Thursday evening, even that fusty hall in Jerusalem - that house that boredom built, that home to bureaucratic Jewish organizational conferences dull as death - can erupt with the electricity and positive might that are the hallmarks if something we thought we'd all lost long ago: hope.

More's the wonder. Before the president began his speech, there was something almost comically old-fashioned in the setting and the set-up. The stage design was George Patton meets Andy Warhol, a chorus line of Israeli and American flags, dwarfed by a backdrop of yet more flags, these the size of semitrailers.
It was a hall which left an entire representative generation of young people without WiFi, a hall stuck back in some Danish modern mid-century time warp. But the setting and the sensibility quickly proved advantageous. The crowd responded not as Israelis at yet another oh-so-predictable, and predictably useless, political gathering, but as individuals responding to a true leader, doing everything he could to speak their language as he spoke his truth.

That setting, more State Fair than state function, came shockingly alive in response to a point of view that truly took into account their deeply rooted fears as well as their habitually trashed hopes, the violence they have known in their lives, the great good in them, and the ways in which their wishes resemble those of the great majority of Palestinians.

They roared approval for Obama's view of security, which was hard-edged and unapologetic, and they roared approval for his vision of a two-state solution that allows Palestinians to enjoy the freedoms and self-determination Israelis know.
This will not be the same country after this speech.

Not soon. Perhaps not in many years. But this is one way that change happens. An event like this, inspiration like this, does not in the end go to waste. It gives new strength to the world-weary and the habitually trashed. It changes momentum. It creates momentum. It does good. It makes way for better.

Not for nothing did Barack Obama cite Martin Luther King's address on the eve of his assassination. The image of the Promised Land as a place Moses will not be able to reach, but one which his work will allow his people to eventually enter, clearly resonates with a president beginning already to see the end of his time in office.

This is not the same country after this speech.

Four years from now, when he hands back the White House, Barack Obama should consider a change of direction, even a change of venue.

Let him run here. It's about time we knew again what a real leader was like.

President Obama speaking in Jerusalem ThursdayCredit: AFP
Obama's speech in words
Obama speaks in Jerusalem.
Peres awards Obama.
Audience at Obama's speech.
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Obama speaks in Jerusalem.Credit: AFP
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Peres awards Obama.Credit: AFP
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Audience at Obama's speech. Credit: AFP
Obama in Israel, day two

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