Obama sends strong message to Israelis, Palestinians

The day after President Obama arrived in Israel, the headline on the front page of the English-language daily across the border in Jordan announced, “Obama promises undying U.S. support for Israel.” The story from the Jordan Times is not the kind of news that warms people’s hearts in the Arab world. And yet, it is one that, along with Obama’s strong support for the creation of a Palestinian state, could ultimately prove helpful for peace in the region.

When the White House announced Obama would visit Jerusalem, the West Bank and Jordan on his first international trip as a second-term president, I wrote about what he might achieve. Back then I argued that he should seek to “erase any doubt that the United States is committed to Israel’s survival,” because “if anyone has questions about that fact, reconciliation will never come.”

The president did exactly that, and I believe it will make a difference.

Israelis, starved for affection, swooned at the show of love. But there was more to the visit. Obama made a poignant and eloquent call for Palestinian statehood. It’s worth noting that his support for Palestinians and criticism of Israeli settlements brought out enthusiastic cheers from his Israeli audience, even if it caused settlers, a politically powerful minority, to wince. Most Israelis do not support the settlers, but they fear for their safety, which is why it was so important for Obama to make a convincing case for security. And he did exactly that.

Obama allayed Israelis’ anxious hearts when he enumerated the long list of threats the country faces, acknowledging the source of their fears: Israeli tourists murdered in Bulgaria (Hezbollah), children in Sderot living under rocket fire (Hamas), chemical stockpiles (Syria) and the ever-present prospect of a nuclear Iran. He said Hezbollah, which has been sending squads to kill Israelis around the world, must be called what it is, “a terrorist organization.”

And, touching what is perhaps the most painful spot, he said, “Your children grow up knowing that people they never met hate them because of who they are.”

Along with repeated mentions of 3,000 years of Jewish history on the land — a historical connection that so many continue to deny — Obama sent clear signals to Tehran, acknowledging the “risks of nuclear terrorism for Israel and for the entire world” and vowing, “America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.”

Then, he used just the right words, in Hebrew for maximum effect: “As long as there is a United States, ‘ atem lo levad.’ You are not alone.”

If he had uttered the words four years ago, I believe relations between Israelis and Palestinians would be stronger today. He would have bolstered Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers. He would have weakened Hamas and Hezbollah; he would have eroded extremists’ influence on both sides. But that’s history. He turned those pages; he said the words now.

Obama explained to Israel’s most determined enemies that “those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere.”

He projected the message so clearly that anyone paying even casual attention could hear. In Jordan, the popular Arabic language newspaper Al-Rai noted with a hint of bitterness, “Obama declares U.S. eternal support for Israel.”

The affirmation of American support for a Jewish state annoyed Arabs, some of whom brought up traditional conspiracies to explain the lovefest. But mostly, people here seemed to shrug their shoulders in a what-did-you-expect mode.

The next day, the principal story of the trip was that Obama stood up for a Palestinian state. The Obama message in the Holy Land was neatly wrapped up.

Four years after coming to office, Obama has clarified his position. He has stated Washington’s official view in terms that are easy to articulate: The United States sides with Israel with all its might, but it wants Israelis to work for Palestinian statehood.

It was just a beginning — a second beginning — but it was a masterful performance. With a deft touch, Obama urged Israelis to pressure their government to take risks for peace, recognizing that the risks are indeed real. And he told Arabs that Israel is going nowhere, so they might as well make the best of it. Like it or not, it was an accurate statement of a difficult, but far from hopeless, reality.

Read more Frida Ghitis stories from the Miami Herald

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