The headline read “Palestinians, Israelis Come Together To Mock Obama’s Hopelessly Naive Speech” and the story opened with this: “Coming together for the first time in generations, Palestinian and Israeli citizens were reportedly seen gathered at the West Bank today mocking President Obama’s hopelessly naive speech proposing the possibility of a two-state solution.”
I checked carefully and found that the story was a parody courtesy of The Onion News.
The distinction here between reality and parody is, alas, a subtle one. What scant media attention The President’s visit to Israel has received and the critical response to the speeches he gave there have been polite at best, largely dismissive on the whole. For all that got made of Obama’s failure to visit Israel in the course of his first term back during the election campaign, now his going there and what he had to say there seem to have barely registered with the American public — from pundits its mostly the droll sighs of those who would bother.
Andrew O’Hehir writing for salon.com examines The President’s speech, credits Obama as being “on the top of his game rhetorically,” all the while seeming to give Mitt Romney the edge for having the more realistic take on Israel and Palestine: “we kick the ball down the field and hope that, ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”
O’Hehir suspects that Obama might secretly agree. President Obama did not arrive in Jerusalem with anything new, so goes the criticism, nothing to offer either party to the non-existent peace process.
But there may be something to what he was saying all along. If there is circumspection about the present possibility, that doesn’t make the plain truth about the future any less —well, true. I remember it was Gershom Gorenberg, writing for slate.com early on in the Obama administration, who argued that it was The President’s vision of a two state solution that could offer Israel and Zionism ultimate success.
Speaking to a group of Israeli students this past week, The President said it plainly once again:
“You can be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future. Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine… 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.”
In the most powerful moments of his speech Obama asked Israelis to put themselves in the shoes of the Palestinians who live under Israeli control. When he said “neither occupation nor expulsion” is the answer, the crowd applauded. He went off script to remind those listening that if any Israeli parent were to sit down with the Palestinian students he had met with recently, they would have the same reaction he did: “I want these kids to succeed. I want these kids to have the same opportunities as my kids.”
The applause was thunderous…
I asked the students around me what they thought of the speech. Most were moved and inspired by the eloquence. Even more so, they were grateful that the President had made the effort to see their neighborhood through their eyes. Obama was asking them to make that same cognitive connection with their neighbors. He was modeling how it’s done. Maybe that isn’t enough. But as he made clear, without it, there can be no start.