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Commentary

Barack Obama appealed to Israel’s liberal conscience

As a piece of rhetoric, Barack Obama’s speech to college students in Jerusalem was a triumph. He finally convinced Israel and its supporters that “HE GETS US,” as one of them emailed me. “In his Kishkas [gut], he gets us!” But Obama also spoke more bluntly about Israel’s occupation and the case for a Palestinian state than any U.S. president has in the past. Oratory aside, Obama has recognized and employed the strongest – and perhaps only – path toward peace and a Palestinian state: an appeal to Israel’s conscience.

For 40 years, those who have tried to push Israel toward making concessions have pointed to dangers and threats. Israel is surrounded by enemies, the argument goes, and the only way to ease that hostility is to give the Palestinians a state. Palestinian terrorism will make daily life in Israel unbearable, another variant explained, and Israel will have to settle this problem politically. These assumptions undergirded the peace process and Obama’s approach in his first term.

The argument reflected reality in the 1980s and 1990s, when Israel faced an array of powerful Arab states with large armies – Iraq, Syria – formally dedicated to its destruction. The Soviet Union backed these regimes with cash and arms and ceaselessly drummed up international opposition to the Jewish state. Israelis lived with constant Palestinian terror, which created a siege mentality within the country.

The situation today, however, is transformed in every sense. The Soviet Union is dead. Iraq and Syria have been sidelined as foes. The Arab world is in upheaval, which produces great uncertainty but has also weakened every Arab country. They all are focused on internal issues of power, legitimacy and survival. The last thing any of them can afford is a confrontation with the country that has become the region’s dominant power.

The data underscore this. Israel’s per capita gross domestic product is now nine times that of Egypt, according to the International Monetary Fund’s most recent figures; six times that of Jordan; and nearly three times that of Turkey. It is almost 50 percent greater than Saudi Arabia’s per capita GDP. Israeli military expenditures are larger than those of all its neighbors combined, and then there are its technological and qualitative superiorities and its alliance with the world’s dominant military power. Israel’s highly effective counterterrorism methods, including the wall separating Palestinians and Israelis and the “iron dome,” which increasingly shields Israelis from missiles, have largely made Palestinian terrorism something that is worried about and planned against but not actually experienced by most Israelis.

Even the much-discussed “demographic threat” is a threat only if Israel sees it as such – something the country’s new breed of politicians, such as Naftali Bennett, have cynically grasped. After all, Israel has ruled millions of Palestinians without offering them citizenship or a state for 40 years. There is no tipping point at which this becomes logistically or technically unsustainable. Walls, roads and checkpoints would work for 4 million Palestinians just as they do for 3 million.

In a sense, both hard-line supporters of Israel and advocates of peace have clung to the notion of the Jewish state as deeply vulnerable. For Likudniks, this demonstrated that Israel was at risk and needed constant support. For peaceniks, it proved that peace was a vital necessity.

But Israel’s strength and security are changing the country’s outlook. Don’t look only at the tough talk coming from the new right. As columnist and author Ari Shavit notes, the country has turned its attention from survival to social, political and economic justice. (January’s election results confirmed this trend.) And while these seem, at first, domestic affairs, they will ultimately lead to a concern for justice in a broader sense and for the rights of Palestinians.

Obama’s speech appealed to this aspect of Israel’s psyche and grounded it deeply in Jewish values: “Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition but also in the idea that a people deserve to be free in a land of their own.” Then, applying that idea to Israel’s longtime adversaries, he said: “Look at the world through [Palestinian] eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own. Living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day.”

Having tried pressure, threats and tough talk, Obama has settled on a new strategy: appealing to Israel as a liberal democracy and to its people’s sense of conscience and character. In the long run, this is the most likely path to peace and a Palestinian state.

Fareed Zakaria is published twice monthly by THE DAILY STAR.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 30, 2013, on page 7.

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