President Barack Obama assured Israelis that his commitment to their country’s security is uncompromising even as he challenged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to take risks for peace and prosperity.
Telling an audience of mostly young Israelis that he speaks “as a friend,” Obama said an agreement with the Palestinians is the path to a more secure future. “Peace is possible,” he said.
“Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable -- that real borders will have to be drawn,” Obama said at the Jerusalem International Convention Center.
Obama’s televised speech was the centerpiece of a three-day visit to Israel -- the first of his presidency -- where he’s sought to reaffirm the U.S.-Israel alliance and overcome skepticism about his commitment to the Jewish homeland. He’s filled the past two days with cultural stops to underscore that appreciation.
In today’s remarks, Obama, 51, weaved in the story of next week’s Jewish holiday of Passover, made references to Israeli writers and politicians, and peppered his speech with Hebrew phrases. Obama spoke directly to the Israeli people at the start of his second term, with Netanyahu having just formed a new government and as change continues to sweep the Arab world.
“Make no mistake: those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere,” Obama said, standing on a stage with Israeli and American flags flanking a banner of a blue menorah -- the symbol of the Jewish state.
“Today, I want to tell you - particularly the young people - that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd,” Obama said, using the Hebrew phrase for “You are not alone.”
As Obama urged young Israelis to make tough choices for peace, his challenge was underscored when a heckler in the audience interrupted his remarks.
“This is part of the lively debate that we talked about, this is good,” Obama said in response, drawing applause from the audience. He said it made him “feel at home.”
While Obama was right to try and connect on an emotional and personal level to Israelis, whether his words translate into action will depend on how Israeli political leaders respond, said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political science professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“These inspiration moments dissipate if nothing on the ground changes,” Wolfsfeld said. “We have to see how the political establishment reacts, if Netanyahu and his government have any intention of taking a new direction or will just continue in the direction of the last few years.”
Obama didn’t set a timetable for talks. Secretary of State John Kerry plans meetings in Israel after the president departs on how to move the process forward.
Etai Bar, 25, a political science student at Ben Gurion University, said that while he agrees with Obama about restarting the peace process, many in the audience and the government are skeptical.
“As a student of politics, I know it won’t change that much,” Bar said. “My leaders are stubborn.”
In Jerusalem and in remarks earlier in the day at a news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Obama said that peace will bring robust economic growth in addition to security.
He cited Israel’s strength in invention, engineering and technology and said that is “just as important to the relationship between the United States and Israel as our security cooperation.”
The U.S. and Israel have $40 billion in trade, he said, and the Jewish state should have that kind of relationship “with every country in the world.”
Israel’s economy grew 3.1 percent last year, down from 4.6 percent in 2011, the Central Bureau of Statistics said in a March 10 report.
The International Monetary Fund in Washington sees growth of 5 percent this year in the Palestinian territories, compared with 6 percent in 2012 and an average of about 11 percent in 2010-2011. It expects a “continuing downward trend in subsequent years.”
The IMF’s March 14 report said “persistent restrictions and increasing political uncertainty” have hobbled the economy of Gaza and the West Bank.
While the stalled peace talks dominated Obama’s remarks, he also reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself against threats from Hamas, Syria and Iran. Obama said the U.S. would “do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran” and “won’t tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people or the transfer of these weapons to terrorists.”
On the need for restarting talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Obama pushed on a lingering point of friction with Netanyahu: Israel’s continued settlement expansion into the West Bank.
Obama urged Israelis put themselves in Palestinian “shoes” and empathized with their right to “be a free people in their own land” just like Israelis.
The U.S. president told the Israelis about his meeting earlier in the day with young Palestinians in the West Bank. “They weren’t that different from my daughters, they weren’t that different from your daughters or sons,” he said. Any Israeli parent who met those Palestinian children would want success for them too, he said.
In his meeting with Abbas, Obama made the point that peace talks shouldn’t wait for the settlement issue to be resolved. Palestinians can’t expect to hold direct negotiations with “everything settled ahead of time,” he said.
“There is a sense he was gently chiding Abbas by saying that while the U.S. opposes settlement activity, that shouldn’t be a reason for not talking,” said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “But it is a very, very mild chiding.”
Just hours before he touched down in Ramallah, four rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel, with one hitting a courtyard in Sderot, a town Obama visited in 2008 when he was a presidential candidate. It caused damage but no injuries. The Shura Council of al-Mujahidin in Jerusalem, a Gaza-based group, said in an e-mailed statement that the rocket fire was a message to Obama.
“Israel cannot accept rocket attacks from Gaza, and we have stood up for Israel’s right to defend itself,” Obama said. “And that’s why Israel has a right to expect Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.”
Obama concluded his day with a state dinner at the residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres. Obama was awarded the Medal of Distinction by Peres, who said it was being bestowed by “a grateful nation, to a great leader.”
Along with Israeli public officials, the guests included Gil Shwed, chief executive officer of Check Point Software Technologies Ltd., the world’s second-largest maker of security networks, and startup investor Yossi Vardi.