Revolutionary Rhetoric?

The U.S. news cycle has quickly passed over Barack Obama’s trip to Israel last week, and a speech he made in Jerusalem that struck a strong chord at the time. But Israelis haven’t “moved on” from the speech, and at TAP, Gershom Gorenberg offers a considered judgment that deserves attention:

After a couple of days for careful reflection, it’s clear: Barack Obama gave an amazing speech. The president of the United States stood in a hall in Jerusalem, and with empathy and with bluntness that has been absent for so long we forgot it could exist, told Israelis: The occupation can’t go on. It’s destroying your own future. And besides that, Palestinians have “a right to … justice” and “to be a free people in their own land.”

If you don’t think this is a breakthrough, you are letting naïve pessimism overcome realism. Yes, it’s true that one speech will be worth nothing if not followed by intense American diplomacy. That comment has become banal. A realistic assessment is that Obama’s visit, and the speech, were the opening act of an American diplomatic effort—a near perfect opening….

The most direct, powerful part of the speech was when Obama said that the Palestinians’ “right to justice must also be recognized,” when he told Israelis that settlement, and roadblocks, and settler violence are unjust. No American president has dared state that stark message before an Israeli audience before—or before an American one. To underline it, he borrowed the line, “to be a free people in our land,” directly from the Israeli national anthem. “Palestinians,” he said, “have a right to be a free people in their land.” The words that define your story of yourselves, that move you even when you are tired of them and think they are kitsch, Obama suggested to Israelis, are the words that should help you empathize with Palestinians.

This approach may seem self-evident to many American liberals, but it’s been largely unstated in official statements of policy–certainly in speeches made in Israel by an American president. Obama’s strong expression of solidarity with Israel, before and during the Jerusalem speech–which some American liberals really did not like–is what made his challenge to the status quo work. We’ll soon see if the follow-up justifies Gorenberg’s optimism, or confirms the pessimism and even ennui that characterized the expectations for this presidential visit.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.