Posted by on March 25, 2013 in Blog

Last week, President Obama delivered an historic speech in Jerusalem, widely considered to be the successor to his previous Middle East speech in Cairo at the start of his first term.

The President touched on many of the same themes as his prior speech: the importance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the unsustainability of relying on Arab autocrats to enforce US interests on their people, and other principles that predicated an unprecedented – and short-lived – spike in Arab approval ratings of the US.

However, the Jerusalem speech was markedly different from its Cairo counterpart in a number of ways, and these may well indicate the shifting perspective of the Obama administration’s foreign policy agenda.

Four particular points from Obama’s speech are particularly important to consider. Some reinforce the narrative he presented four years before, and others directly contradict it.

  1. Acknowledgment that the “two-state solution” is dying
  2. Though Obama spoke at length about the importance of a two-state solution in his previous address, his Jerusalem speech frankly admitted what is often only said in private: the opportunity for achieving any sort of meaningful two-state solution grows smaller by the day. Continued settlement construction in the West Bank, as well as the sizeable Palestinian population inside of Israel’s 1967 boundaries, are forcing Israel’s two self-defined characteristics – Jewish identity and democratic structure – to come at odds with one another. Obama explicitly acknowledged this: “Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.”

  3. Harsh words but no harsh actions
  4. The irony of Obama’s stronger stand of the collapsing potential for a two-state solution was his commensurate softening of his attack of Israel’s occupation policies. Compare his statements on illegal Israeli settlements.

    Cairo Speech:

    “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

    Jerusalem Speech:

    “Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace and that an independent Palestine must be viable, with real borders that have to be drawn.”

    Considering how significant political cost Obama bore when he first attempted to freeze settlement construction, it is hardly surprising that he’s refraining from sticking his neck out again. He even admitted earlier in the speech that “the easiest thing for me to do would be to put this issue aside, just express unconditional support for whatever Israel decides to do,” and though he followed up with some strong rhetoric, it seems clear that he won’t be holding Prime Minister Netanyahu’s feet to the fire any time soon. And without any substantive push from the US to halt settlement activity, it’s hard to imagine where the basis of a two-state solution can actually begin.

  5. Recognition of Palestinian suffering on a human level
  6. The Cairo speech was the first time we heard a US president really present the suffering of the Palestinian people, and indeed Obama remarked long ago that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” But, considering the juxtaposition of these old statements and Obama administration’s policies toward the Palestinians, it is certainly meaningful that Obama once again reiterated the plight of the Palestinian people. Arguably more than ever before, he called on the Israelis to acknowledge the humanity of the Palestinian people, as well as their entitlement to live on the land of their ancestors. His words speak for themselves:

    “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 their own, living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements, not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank or displace Palestinian families from their homes. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”

  7. Confronting the international isolation of Israel
  8. This speech also marked the first time Obama publicly acknowledged “the frustration in the international community” toward Israel, and warned about the ever-growing need to “reverse an undertow of isolation.”  It is an important realization for Israeli and US policymakers alike that the rest of the world views this conflict in a starkly different light, and we no longer live in a world where the opinion of everyone else can be simply ignored.

    This is also true regarding Israel’s relationship with its neighbors, which has historically relied on top-level relations with autocratic governments while the Arab street seethed. Obama acknowledged that “the days when Israel could seek peace simply with a handful of autocratic leaders -- those days are over.”

Though US policies have hardly changed to reflect these facts, it’s somewhat comforting – or frustrating, depending on how you look at it – to see that the Obama administration is at least aware of this disparity. Whether or not the Obama administration and their Israeli counterparts do anything about it remains to be seen.


You can read President Obama’s Jerusalem speech here, and his Cairo speech here.

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