For a number of years now I’ve stressed that for American leaders to be successful in their quest for Middle East peace, they must explain publicly and directly to deeply scarred and pessimistic Israelis and Palestinians why it is the United States believes peace is necessary and possible. Finally, today, President Obama did just that, and very eloquently.
Obama’s powerful speech to the Israeli people at Jerusalem’s Convention Center was the centerpiece of his Israel and West Bank trip—the president’s first foray abroad in his second term. Today, Obama aimed not to advance a specific set of policy proposals as much as to establish a new foundation for U.S. engagement with Israel for the remainder of his presidency. Along with stressing his commitment to Israel’s security and to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, President Obama placed at the center of that foundation a long-needed exhortation to peace.
Obama quoted the Israeli author David Grossman calling for a “peace of no choice” that “must be approached with the same determination and creativity as one approaches a war of no choice.” To applause from his Israeli audience, Obama echoed the Israeli national anthem and said, “Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”
While many may be surprised to find that Obama’s message received a hearty Israeli reception, I am not.
I left Jerusalem in 2010, having spent the previous two years shuttling daily between Palestinians and Israelis as the head of the Quartet mission under its representative, former prime minister Tony Blair. Though I had worked on Israeli and Palestinian issues for over twenty years at the State Department and at the White House, and had lived and worked in Israel and the West Bank on separate occasions, I came to a new appreciation during those two years in Jerusalem: while Israelis and Palestinians are deeply pessimistic about the possibilities for peace, they nonetheless desperately yearn for it.
Both sides felt betrayed when post-Oslo negotiations broke down, leading to a second intifada that left thousands of Palestinians and Israelis dead. Though the belief that peace was possible had been deeply damaged, the longing for a way out of their despair has endured. Despite all their disappointments, I found that rather than wanting the naïve and optimistic Americans to go away, Israelis and Palestinians wanted us Yanks to convince them that they were wrong about the other side, and that there are indeed reasons for hope. The warm reception that Israelis afforded President Obama’s call today for peace, justice, and sovereignty for the Palestinians demonstrates this.
Last week, I addressed the annual Herzliya Conference—Israel’s Davos—and said that breaking the impasse between Israelis and Palestinians was possible, but that to do so, all three sides—the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority—must fill the badly needed leadership gap. In neglecting to talk about the need and possibilities for peace, Middle East leaders had convinced their peoples that they lacked a partner on the other side. Leaders needed to help shape a vision for a better future, to be candid not just about the sacrifices to be made for peace but about the gains that can be attained through compromise. Leadership and sustained public conditioning is a critical element needed to break Israeli and Palestinian disillusionment.
Given the absence of positive vision emanating from the region, it is all the more imperative for the United States, if it really believes that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a strategic priority, to undertake efforts to explain why this is so and how the situation can be improved if not resolved. This requires not just one presidential speech, however, but a sustained U.S. effort to engage publicly in a dialogue with the peoples of the region about the need and possibilities for peace. Should American officials continue to do so, they will continue to find that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians are desperately receptive.
Skepticism about peace is justified: Negotiations have been discredited and lack public support because they have not produced positive changes in people’s lives. Breaking the Israeli-Palestinian impasse requires a renewed commitment to sustained diplomacy and an integrated approach that combines real economic and security improvements on the ground with an active political process. It requires a conceptual shift that treats the economic, political, and security elements as an integrated whole, as I explain in the recently published book, Pathways to Peace: America and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, where I advocate integrating the “top-down” with the “bottom-up” approaches to peace. It requires a commitment not just to high-level diplomacy but to changing on-the-ground realities in a positive direction immediately. Israeli steps must aim to convince Palestinians that Israel is working to end the occupation, not entrench it. And Palestinians must demonstrate unambiguously that they seek to live alongside Israel in peace and security, not to destroy it.
In June 2009, President Obama made a historic speech at Cairo University that stirred the hopes and aspirations of Egyptians and Middle Easterners. Those feelings soon dissipated and were replaced by anger and cynicism when words were not followed up by actions. For President Obama to maintain the hopes raised today, the United States will need to work quickly, in a sustained manner, to help translate words into deeds. Otherwise, the image of Middle East peace drawn by the president in Jerusalem will soon become a faded mirage.