President Barack Obama brought an passionate appeal Thursday for Israel to recognize that compromise will be necessary to achieve lasting security and to take steps to reverse an “undertow” of international isolation that is worsened by its failure to make peace with the Palestinians. Militants again underscored Israel’s vulnerability by firing rockets into a southern border town.
Obama declared anew that Israeli expansion of housing settlements in disputed territory only hinders chances for fruitful negotiations with the Palestinians, but he did not say as he has in the past that they must be halted.
Reminding an audience of Israeli university students that the United States is their country’s best friend and most important ally, Obama said the U.S. will never back down on its commitment to Israel’s defense, particularly against threats such as the one posed by Iran and its nuclear program.
“As long as there is a United States of America, you are not alone,” he told a packed audience of university students who erupted frequently with applause and standing ovations at Jerusalem’s convention center.
The applause continued even as Obama stressed that Israel must make peace with the Palestinians if it is to ensure its survival and long-term viability as a homeland for the Jewish people. Israeli occupation of areas that the Palestinians claim for their own state must end, and progress toward creating that Palestinian state will help Israel’s relations with the rest of the world, notably in its Arab-dominated neighborhood, he said.
Unlike in the past when Obama and his top aides have demanded that Israel halt the expansion of settlements in disputed territory, he took a softer approach. Still, on his first trip to Israel as president, he said its people should understand that specific actions, notably ongoing construction of Jewish housing on disputed territory, hurt the chances for restarting stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, who have made a halt to such building a demand for returning to negotiations.
“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,” he said. “No single step is going to erase years of history and propaganda, but progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin, while sidelining extremists who thrive on conflict and thrive on division. It would make a difference.”
In what appeared to be an attempt to blunt such criticism, Obama used his speech to the Israeli students to appeal to their love of freedom, respect for human rights and common values with Americans to do the right thing. He offered profuse praise for Israel’s history as a haven for refugees fleeing social and religious persecution. He hailed the technological innovations made by Israeli scientists and engineers.
Though he made no demands of Israel, he made clear he was seeking their cooperation and understanding as a friend, noting that it would be easier for him to avoid anything approaching criticism of Israel because of its very strong backing in Congress and among the American people.
“Politically, given the strong bipartisan support for Israel in America, the easiest thing for me to do would be to put this issue aside, just express unconditional support for whatever Israel decides to do that would be the easiest political path. But I want you to know that I speak to you as a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future.”