In an emotional speech to hundreds of university students, President Obama urged young Israelis to push their government to re-launch peace talks with the Palestinians, arguing it is the only way to ensure the future of Israeli democracy.
“The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized,” Obama said in a speech punctuated by waves of applause and standing ovations. “Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when ‘settler’ violence against Palestinians goes unpunished.”
That last sentence sparked a wave of boos that were quickly drowned out by applause. President Obama also told these young Israelis that peace is in Israel’s interest and that continued construction in areas Israel conquered in 1967 is “counterproductive” to peace.
“Only you can determine what kind of democracy you will have,” he said. “But remember that as you make these decisions, you will define not simply the future of your relationship with the Palestinians – you will define the future of Israel as well. As (former Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon said, ‘It is impossible to have a Jewish, democratic state and at the same time to control all of Eretz Yisrael (the Hebrew term for the land of Israel which includes post 1967 territory.) If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all.’”
About ten minutes into his speech, the President was heckled by one man, who was quickly drowned out by the students. Obama joked about the incident.
“We actually arranged for that because it made me feel at home,” he said to wild cheering. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable without at least one heckler.”
The hand-picked audience of students seemed overwhelmed with admiration for the President, who spoke on a stage draped with floor-to-ceiling American and Israeli flags.
“I loved it – it was very inspirational,” Amir Weinreb, 26, a student of communications at Sapir College in southern Israel told The Media Line. “I agree with him. I think we have to have two states for two peoples (Israel and the Palestinians) and I am optimistic that it can happen.”
Weinreb, who now sports a silver pierced earring through his eyebrow, served as a tank commander in the army and continues to do reserve duty. His college has been a frequent target of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip including two which fell nearby while Obama was in Israel.
Other students seemed equally inspired.
“I feel like I’m floating,” Gal Klainer, 27, a student of electrical engineering at Ben Gurion University told The Media Line. “I was amazed at the speech. I see that he understands us and feels the things that are important to us. I believe Palestinians want peace as much as we do, and I want to do more for peace.”
There was some criticism of the President, who chose the speech to students at Israel’s ICC Convention Center over a more traditional appearance before Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, where his reception from many in Israel’s right-wing government would have been decidedly cooler. All three of Obama’s predecessors accepted the invitation to speak at the Knesset, but Obama said he preferred to speak to students instead. Some here were also angry that students from Ariel University, which is located in post-1967 territory, were not invited to attend.
Also at the speech were many of the legislators of Israel’s new government.
“This is very emotional for me because he started as a community organizer and worked his way up,” Stav Shaffir, a leader of the social-economic protests of 2011 and a new Knesset member for the Labor Party told The Media Line. “It was an excellent speech, but what’s important is actions. We need help in moving toward a solution. We want him to push (Prime Minister Binyamin) Netanyahu toward a solution.”
Obama also won loud applause when he warned Syria, Israel’s northern neighbor, not to use chemical weapons.
“I have made it clear to [President] Bashar Al-Assad and all who follow his orders: we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people or the transfer of these weapons to terrorists. The world is watching, and we hold you accountable.”
He also provoked loud laughter when he referred to his often frosty relationship with Netanyahu.
“Now I know that in Israel’s vibrant democracy, every world and gesture is carefully scrutinized,” the President said. “But just so you know, any drama between me and my friend Bibi (Netanyahu’s nickname) over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehedert (Israeli television’s version of Saturday Night Live).”
Obama also spoke emotionally of the upcoming Passover holiday.
“It is a story of centuries of slavery, and years of wandering in the desert; a story of perseverance amidst persecution, and faith in God and the Torah,” he said. ‘As Dr. Martin Luther King said on the day before he was killed – “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that…we, as a people, will get to the promised land.’ So just as Joshua carried-on after Moses, the world goes on – for justice and dignity for opportunity and freedom.”
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