Obama’s speech: Israel’s Left and Right can be happy, and the occupation is here to stay

Some initial thoughts on President Barack Obama’s speech in Jerusalem (full text here):

Measuring the value or effect of a speech on its own is futile. Words matter in a political context, power relations and the actions that they accompany. Just as nobody seriously thinks that a good speech can make health care reform pass in the House, Obama’s speech needs to be evaluated within the politics that surrounded his first term and his current visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories.

On the level of words and rhetoric, there was a mixture of “good” and “bad” in Obama’s speech. The worst parts, I think, were the reaffirmation of the Israeli perception, according to which Israeli governments continue seeking peace but have been answered by Arab refusal. When there is a comprehensive peace offer on the table from ALL Arab regimes – the so called Saudi Peace Initiative – which Israel has chosen to ignore for over a decade, such rhetoric on the part of the president only helps Israelis to continue avoid facing the truth. The president also backed the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, something that Netanyahu introduced as a way to avoid meaningful talks. No previous Israeli government has put forward such a demand, but after Obama backed it, now everyone will. Bad move.

On the positive side, there were some very clear words about the occupation, and they were based not only on Israeli interests, but also on moral values and the Palestinian right to freedom. I want to post this part here, because these are important and truthful words:

“[The] Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”

Still, without meaningful political actions, this was an empty effort. Everybody in Israel can be happy with the president’s speech: the Left heard all those niceties regarding peace, while the Right proved that the occupation has no cost, that the rift with the U.S. doesn’t exist and that denying the Palestinians their freedom is sustainable policy (examples here, here). At the end of the day, Netanyahu’s confrontational attitude has humbled the U.S. president and changed both his tactics and his goals on the Israeli/Palestinian issue. The prime minister payed a price for his politics, no doubt – seeing the president talking to Israelis over his head was surely unpleasant, and could further diminish his popularity – but Netanyahu was nevertheless able to maintain the status quo on the Palestinian issue, which is both something he believes in, and the key to his political survival.