Was it a speech to help launch his campaign for re-election, or an address to bury hopes for immediate Palestinian statehood recognition?
Both assessments marked the immediate reaction to President Obama’s speech Wednesday at the United Nations General Assembly, and there was ammunition for both arguments. But both also may have missed the point: The speech smacked of what has become an Obama specialty: the “get real speech.”
In this case, his target appeared to be the United Nations and its constituent members. The bottom line of the Israeli-Palestinian portion of the speech—635 words out of 4,500—was that dismissing real Israeli concerns about security was not a good way to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
“The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition,” Obama said after outlining the array of threats that Israelis have faced in recent years, including rocket attacks and suicide bombers. “It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine.”
This Obama characteristic—presenting himself as a truth teller—has rankled rivals. Some critics in the United States and Israel have described it as arrogance.
But in the context of the Palestinian efforts this week to achieve statehood recognition, there was only gratitude from Israeli and Jewish leaders, who thanked Obama for making it clear to the assembled world leaders that pre-emptive Palestinian statehood would not get anywhere.
“You’ve also made it clear that the Palestinians deserve a state, but it’s a state that has to make that peace with Israel,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at an appearance with Obama after the president delivered the speech. “And, therefore, their attempt to shortcut this process, not negotiate a peace—that attempt to get membership, state membership in the United Nations—will not succeed.”
The speech was underpinned by U.S. efforts to draw away enough votes to make a difference on the issue of statehood recognition for the Palestinians. If fewer than nine of the 15 U.N. Security Council nations vote for statehood, the United States would not have to exercise its veto in the council. If the Palestinians attempt to achieve enhanced status through the General Assembly, they will likely gain the necessary majority—but votes against or abstentions by European and Western nations would rob them of a moral victory.
“If the Palestinians are truly serious about a viable two-state deal, they should stop the counterproductive brinksmanship at the U.N. and return to the negotiating table now,” said David Harris, the director of the American Jewish Committee.
Harris and his counterparts at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and B’nai B’rith International all praised Obama’s speech.
Advocates of greater pressure on Netanyahu to make concessions to the Palestinians said Obama’s speech reeked of electioneering at a time when the Obama campaign is trying to reach out to the Jewish community to staunch the loss of Jewish support.
“Obama to UN. Israelis and Jews suffer. Palestinians, not so much. Full court pander 2 lobby,” Tweeted M.J. Rosenberg, a columnist with the liberal Media Matters website.
Others detected a note of despair from a president who has tried from his first day in office to restart talks.
“Regrettably, the president’s words offered very little in the way of hope to Israelis and Palestinians,” Americans for Peace Now said. “The United States cannot maintain credibility as the standard-bearer of rights and freedoms while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is left to fester.”
Obama prides himself, perhaps to a fault, on telling his listeners what he considers to be uncomfortable truths. He unsettled Arab listeners in his June 2009 Cairo speech by lecturing them about the futility of Holocaust denial. People involved in crafting that speech have said there was a recognition that the Muslim world anticipated a love fest but that the president thought it important to address what he sees an obstacle to Muslim-Western reconciliation.
Likewise, when Obama spoke to the annual AIPAC conference in May, he reiterated his call from several days earlier calling on Israel to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps. Many conference-goers had hoped Obama would offer a more conciliatory speech to the pro-Israel crowd.
The Washington Convention Center fell silent when the president outlined a bleak future should Israel not come to the talks table and implicitly criticized Netanyahu for offering too little to make a difference.
“The march to isolate Israel internationally—and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations—- will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative,” he said. “And for us to have leverage with the Palestinians, to have leverage with the Arab states and with the international community, the basis for negotiations has to hold out the prospect of success.”
At the United Nations on Wednesday, however, Obama focused on what the Palestinians and the Arab world need to offer the Israelis: security assurances.