US President Barack Obama waves in Jerusalem, on March 21, 2013
US President Barack Obama waves as he walks off stage after delivering a speech to the Israeli people at the Jerusalem International Convention Center in Jerusalem, on March 21, 2013 on the second day of his 3-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. © Mandel Ngan - AFP
US President Barack Obama waves in Jerusalem, on March 21, 2013
Last updated: April 29, 2013

On Obama's Jerusalem speech

Banner Icon Judging from the ovations, Obama hit the right note over and over again, even at the times when he ventured to veiled but sharp criticism of the host government, writes Per Jönsson.

The way you speak to Muslims, you don’t speak to Jews. And the way you speak to Arabs, you don’t speak to Israelis.

That seems to have been Barack Obama’s reasoning when he, in his fifth year as president, finally visited America’s number one ally in the Middle East, the Jewish state of Israel.

The star number during the visit, a speech in front of some thousand selected students in Jerusalem, was a copybook display of Obama’s skilled rhetoric, polished by talented speechwriters who had done their homework.

Gone was the rosy language with numerous Quran quotes from Obama’s famous Cairo speech in June 2009, during his first year as president. References to the universal values that unite the US and the Muslim world were also nowhere to be found.

This time Obama instead focused on what unites America and Israel – how both these states were born as a refuge for persecuted, god-fearing people who ploughed new lands to win freedom.

The American president also proved to be a dab hand at Jewish symbols, holidays, bible stories and popular cultural phenomenon. Judging from the students’ ovations, Obama hit the right note over and over again, even at the times when he ventured to veiled but sharp criticism of the host government.

And it is exactly those critical aspects that will most likely be the lasting memory of Obama’s trip to Israel, if you are to judge from comments in the country’s media.

“Brave leaders – Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin – reached treaties with two of your neighbors…the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine… You must create the change that you want to see,” urged Obama with the important reference to a Jewish, democratic state that is so important to Israelis.

And to guard both the Jewish and democratic parts of Israel, some sacrifices are necessary, noted Obama. Some earlier Israeli leaders have already realised and acted on this – even the warlord above all others, the famous – and notorious – general and prime minister Ariel Sharon, who was quoted by Obama: “It is impossible to have a Jewish democratic state, at the same time to control all of Eretz Israel.”

It was a clear box on the ear on prime minister Netanyahu and his new government, which is dominated by religious orthodox politicians who want to confiscate whole or the vast part of the occupied West Bank, thereby achieving the goal that Jews should inhabit the entire biblical Eretz Yisrael.

Sharon gave up the Gaza Strip and evacuated Israeli settlements from there, but according to Obama it is now time for Israel to move on and finally hand over the West Bank to the Palestinians.

“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,” said Obama and revealed that his administration has drafted concrete suggestions and principles on territory and security as the basis for these two states.

Here, the US president put his finger on what has always been a paradoxical idiosyncrasy of the democratic state of Israel – that the country during its 65 year long history has lacked unambiguous, legally set and internationally recognized borders.

Neither in Israel’s declaration of independence from May 1948 nor after the ensuing yearlong war with the Arab states, the Israeli leaders chose to specify the new state’s borders. The same thing applied after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights, and annexed and expanded the Palestinian East Jerusalem.

Ever since the constantly growing settlement project, it has become even more unclear where the borders of the Israeli state are, especially since the country’s legislation has been expanded to apply to all settlers in the occupied territories.

To speak about the lack of state borders and that the entire Eretz Yisrael can’t be both Jewish and democratic, like Obama did, is language that every Israeli understands, but which most people in the outside world aren’t aware of or comprehend the controversial meaning of.

But to sneak in such charged wording in the Jerusalem speech’s flora of positive Jewish symbolism shows that the US president, or at least his clever speechwriters, knows how to speak with Jews and Israelis in their own way. In any event, such criticism is more difficult for the Netanyahu government to dismiss than the rest of the world’s usual high-pitched condemnations of Israel.

Translated from Swedish by David Hedengren.

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Per Jönsson
Per is an Associated Editor at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. For 30 years, he worked as a reporter at the foreign desk of Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest morning newspaper. He recently returned from a longer trip to Israel.
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