Friday, 22 March 2013

MIDDLE-EAST: ''Obama's visit'': Obama's revolutionary speech

From the moment the White House announced that President Barack Obama would travel to Israel, the administration undertook a systematic effort to lower expectations, calling the trip a ''listening mission''. On that count, the president’s trip succeeded before it started.

The first part of Obama's visit seemed a clear effort to patch up some of those differences. The president was received at the airport by Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres and the country's entire cabinet. Almost immediately upon arrival, Obama began calling his host by his nickname "Bibi" and the two even spent a great deal of time whispering to each other during dinner on Thursday night at the presidential residence.

Obama also said all the right things, saying that the US-Israeli alliance was eternal and emphasizing that all options remained on the table when it comes to Iran's nuclear program.

Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Egypt soon after his first election left many in Israel feeling abandoned by Washington and last year, Netanyahu even publicly threw his support behind Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

 Practically no one expects the Obama visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan to achieve any kind of a historic triumph. Syria's and Iran's issues were obviously the hot topics of the President trip to Israel but the important moment was Barack Obama's speech to Israelis students.

US President Barack Obama's message was clear as he spoke to hundreds of hand-picked Israeli students at the convention center in Jerusalem. Palestinian and Israeli leaders, he said, will not come to agreement on a peace deal without pressure from below.

"I can promise you this," Obama said. "Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see."

He also implored his listeners to "put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes," in reference to the Palestinians who, he said, live "their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls their movements." Just as Israelis have been able to build up their own country, he said, Palestinians "have a right to be a free people in their own land."

That his remarks were greeted by applause is likely a testament to the painstaking process of application students had to go through to be allowed to attend the address. In official Israel, in any case, the speech was not well received. Netanyahu released a curt statement thanking Obama for the "unreserved support for the state of Israel" the president pledged in his speech. Beyond that, he said merely that he too believes peace must guarantee security for Israeli citizens and "agrees with President Obama that we have a wonderful country."

Obama's address and Netanyahu's reaction to it represented perhaps the most honest moments of the president's Middle East visit thus far. It is the president's first trip to Israel in over four years in the White House and it has long been clear that there is very little love lost between the two leaders.

Obama held a good speech in front of the Israeli students in Jerusalem. He delivered a few uncomfortable truths to the younger generation of Israelis and asked them to see things from the Palestinian perspective. It was an attempt to break through the peace-cynicism that many Israelis understandably hold on to. But he did so in a way that wasn't demanding so much as it was full of understanding and sympathy. Obama struck a tone that most Europeans have abandoned when it comes to Israel.

It seems unlikely that Obama's visit will do much to advance the cause of peace in the region. The two sides at the moment remain so far apart that Netanyahu's skepticism of the president is only rivalled by that felt by the Palestinians, who feel that the White House hasn't done enough to help them secure statehood.

Obama's visit to Israel was also an attempt to correct past mistakes he has made in the region. It was necessary that Obama expand his charm offensive (from the Muslim world) to include the Israelis, who have long seen this president as an opponent. And it looks as though he was successful. At the same time, though, Obama remained critical of Israeli settlements, but he also made it clear to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he would no longer accept the issue as an excuse for not participating in negotiations. It is a move which places Obama on neutral ground from where it becomes easier to make progress.

Israel's policies could become a serious threat to US interests in the region -- and America, no matter how deep the friendship may seem, will not allow that. Because the balance of power in the relationship is clear, there are only two possibilities. Either Israel adjusts and takes on the American position at least in part. Or the US will ultimately create more distance to its tiny ally.

One could see signs of that even during this week's staged pageantry. The pinnacle of Obama's visit was not, after all, a speech before the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, as the leadership in Jerusalem had wished. Instead, Obama chose his own audience and presented his vision of peace to a group of university students -- not to politicians.

Even though skepticism runs as deep as the distrust between Israelis and Palestinians over Obama's latest effort, he was intent on testing the waters anyway in his first official trip this week to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

After all, his biggest risk is nothing more than failure - but that's something almost every recent U.S. president has experienced in Middle East peacemaking. The upside is clear for a second-term president who will never again have to face an election: a potential boon to his presidential legacy.

For now, though, Obama is moving cautiously, with soothing rhetoric, friendly pressure and popular outreach marking his visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah. His speech was indeed a ''revolutionary speech'' afterall.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Amalyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo Credit: AFP