Obama Wants to Connect Civil Rights to Middle East Peace, but It's Not That Easy

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On the final day of his first trip to Israel, which is supposed to signal a new engagement with the peace process, President Obama laid a stone from the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial on the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated by an extremist for negotiating for Peace with Palestinians. He was not the only one to invoke the American civil rights movement on his visit to the Middle East. Earlier this week, protesters in the West Bank wore t-shirts reading "I have a dream" and masks with Obama's face on them. Others wore MLK masks or carried photos of Rosa Parks. 

Obama seemed to encourage the idea that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a citizen-led social movement. In his speech to young liberal Israelis Thursday, Obama was trying to show a new engagement with the peace process, but he suggested to young Israelis that they had far more power than he does. "Let me say this as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks," Obama said. "You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things." Peace begins not just with leaders, Obama said, but with the people who elected them. Foreign Policy's Daniel Levy points out that during Obama's press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday, the president seemed fed up: 

When asked to address the Palestinian issue, the U.S. president on three occasions said that he would have more to say when he spoke directly to the Israeli people. The apparent takeaway is that for Obama, spending (wasting?) too much time trying to make progress with the Israeli prime minister on the Palestinian question is an exercise in futility -- a recognition that the politics would have to change first and that the Israeli public would be key to any political shift.

So maybe that's why he sounded like a community organizer in his Thursday speech. The Los Angeles Times' David Lauter writes that a key line was when he asked Israelis to empathize with Palestinians: "Put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes." Lauter reports:

That line "took guts to say to an Israeli audience in Jerusalem," said Robert M. Danin, a longtime U.S. diplomat in the Middle East and now with the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg writes that while Obama got a standing ovation, if he'd been at an AIPAC conference, he'd have been booed. "It's obvious to me that from now on, Obama should deliver his pro-Israel speeches at the Jerusalem Convention Center, not the Washington Convention Center," Goldberg writes.

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But The New Yorker's David Remnick insists that all the warm fuzzy stuff about citizen action is disappointing. "If Israel and Palestine are truly left to their own devices, the likely result will be, for everyone, a grim and profoundly unsatisfying prospect—even a dangerous one," Remnick writes. The Palestinian Authority is "weak," he says, while the Israeli government is "grotesquely fractured." If Obama is merely going to wait for political consensus to form, his trip will be a failure.

The weather will give Obama a poignant view of Palestinian life, The New York Times' Jodi Rudoren reports. Because of a windstorm, he won't be able to take a helicopter to Bethlehem. Instead, he'll have to drive past Israel's separation barrier.

The American civil rights movement doesn't seem like the perfect analogy for the push for Palestinian statehood. The goals of both are dignity and freedom for people. But the goals are different. The civil rights movement wanted to integrate black people into American society. Obama, most Israelis, and Palestinians want a two-state solution. That takes more than changing hearts and minds of average people. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.