While President Obama’s speech was addressed to the Arab world, it had been nervously anticipated in Israel, as well. In its aftermath, some Israelis are quibbling with word choices or wondering whether he is naïve in believing that Hamas might renounce terror or that Iranians can be entrusted with civilian nuclear capacity. Others are assailing his comments about settlements.
But the real news is that contrary to what many expected, or feared, President Obama assumed positions virtually identical to those of Israel’s political center — namely, that the Palestinians must renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist, while Israel must cease settlement building and permit a Palestinian state to arise. Now, Benjamin Netanyahu’s problem is that it’s difficult to distinguish between President Obama and Tzipi Livni. And in Israel’s recent elections, Livni and her Kadima party won more votes than anyone else.
But the major “problem” that the speech poses for Israel’s leaders is that Israelis are finally going to have to make painful decisions about our future. No longer will Israel’s fractious politics provide a curtain behind which to hide. Will we abide a Palestinian state, or are we committed to the present stalemate as a matter of principle? Are we committed to keeping the West Bank (for reasons of security, history or theology), or are we open to withdrawing if a genuine peace accord is possible? If all Jews will have to depart the West Bank, what about Arabs in Israel? For years, we’ve fudged on these painful questions; with President Obama, that may no longer be possible.
Once Israelis grow accustomed to the new tenor emanating from Washington, we may see today’s speech in a different light. Barack Obama may or may not bring peace to the Middle East, but he may well force clarity, and perhaps disciplined policy, on an Israeli society that has long desperately needed it.