I'm off to do a couple of interviews, but I thought I would just jot down a few early reactions to the president's speech in Jerusalem. It was a very strong speech -- there were a couple of flat, campaign-like moments -- but overall it was strong. The President was a bit more blunt than I thought, but his bluntness was rewarded by loud cheers from his youngish audience when he talked about the need to create a Palestinian state. (On the other hand, I was sitting near the head of the settlers' council, who seemed ready to explode with anger.) I'm imagining that the Israeli reaction to Obama's call will come as a pleasant surprise to at least some Palestinians.
The President answered the kishka question -- the gut question -- pretty well. Some people won't be satisfied, but the president conveyed, over and over again, that he stands with Israel, he believes in Israel, and so long as there is a United States, there will be an Israel. He spoke well about the Jewish connection to the land, and made it abundantly clear he believes that Zionism is a genuine and justified national liberatlon movement rooted in ancient history and tradition. And he spoke well of his appreciation for Judaism, exploring its relationship to his own tradition (though the mention of tikkun olam -- "repairing the world" -- would have gone over better in the U.S, where it has become the core idea of progressive Judaism. The way Obama understands tikkun olam is not the way many Israelis understand it).
I spoke to several members of the audience, who confirmed my impression that Israelis just wanted to know that he liked them. It's hard to understand this from the U.S., but the idea really did take hold here that Obama genuinely hated Israel. So this whole trip is a bit of a revelation for ordinary Israelis.
On the other hand, I've run into people who were surprised President Obama took it too strong to Bibi (one conservative-leaning Israeli I just ran into suggested that Obama was interfering in Israeli politics as payback for Netanyahu's alleged meddling in the American election). Obama pleaded with his audience to challenge their leaders on the question of peace and compromise. I guess the whole Bibi-Barack love festival has an expiration date.
One more note: the President spoke most feelingly, I think, when he asked Israelis to imagine the lives of Palestinian children, and asked Israelis to put themselves in the shoes of Palestinians. This seemed reasonable to me, but it probably caused Netanyahu, watching on television, to say, "Well, yes, but first the Palestinians have to understand what it's like to be an Israeli." I've very seldom run into Palestinians and Israelis who can imagine what life is like on the other side without quickly resorting to demands that the other side do so first. Which is part of the problem.
More to come.
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