President Obama knows how to raise expectations. He did so again last week in Jerusalem during a widely televised speech, speaking to Israelis as a friend, about the importance of being “open and honest with one another.” He reached out to young Israelis, in particular, arguing they must not let another generation pass without concluding a peace agreement with Palestinians.
One missing element on both sides of the conflict has been preparation, Israeli and Palestinian leaders failing to prod their peoples to confront fully the tough choices required for an enduring accord, matters such as a limited right to return and a retreat from settlements. The president discovered as much when early in his first term he demanded that Israel halt settlement construction in occupied lands as a way to restart negotiations. By last year, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was practically campaigning against the president’s re-election bid.
If Obama was right on the policy, he learned something about persuasion. During his visit, he tried again, the message in many ways as tough yet couched in passages that eased Israeli suspicions and played smartly to their aspirations.
The president reinforced that an Israel wishing to remain a Jewish and democratic state must conclude a peace agreement with Palestinians. The demographics dictate as much. He added that an Israel eager to fulfill its potential as a high-technology powerhouse must overcome the isolation and distraction resulting from decades of conflict.
Israelis know all of this. The value comes in the president of their leading ally framing the challenge around where Israelis want to go, even pressing them to see that Palestinians seek the same. “Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland,” he reasoned, “Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”
No question, Palestinians must face their own hard realities, including the president wavering on settlements. What should prove heartening is the president telling his Israeli audience: “Put yourself in their shoes. … It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot go up in a state of her own, and lives in the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents, every single day.”
Will the president build on his words? Hard to miss his uncharacteristic engagement in persuading Prime Minister Netanyahu to apologize to Recep Tayyip, the prime minister of Turkey, for the deadly actions of Israeli commandos three years ago in boarding a Turkish ship. Returning to an effective relationship between Israel and Turkey would improve the dynamics of the fractured region. A peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians would do so by many multiples.
So, yes, expectations have brightened. Yet, as the past has shown, even the most engaged president cannot deliver on his own. Israelis and Palestinians must perform the task. The president helped in addressing clearly the how and why.