Barack Obama stepped down from the podium a couple hours ago after delivering what my gut tells me was a historic speech.
I have two reasons for thinking this is true, but take these comments as a quick, first reaction.
More than any other American president who has spoken about Israel and the conflict, Obama used a thoroughly Israeli vocabulary. He described how an Israeli perceives the security situation in terms that spoke directly to Israel’s historical memory, siege mentality, and utter fatigue with high-minded talk of peace.
Here’s how he described what it means to be an Israeli:
You live in a neighborhood where many of your neighbors have rejected the right of your nation to exist, and your grandparents had to risk their lives and all that they had to make a place for themselves in this world.
Your parents lived through war after war to ensure the survival of the Jewish state. Your children grow up knowing that people they’ve never met may hate them because of who they are, in a region that is full of turmoil and changing underneath your feet.
This was the language that hit its mark, the Israeli kishkes, more than the name checks of Sharon, Ben-Gurion, and Rabin, or the tortured attempts to throw out a word in Hebrew here or there.
And it felt like a departure from past rhetoric, which spoke about the necessity for peace without acknowledging why it might be so hard for Israelis to take the concept seriously any more.
Barack Obama had young Israelis eating out of his hand, during his speech in Jerusalem, ticking all the boxes that the audience hoped, and throwing in a few good laughs.
He reiterated his commitment to Israel’s security, spoke of the importance of the missile defense systems in the south to ensure that children can “sleep at night,” gave reassurances on Iran, with “all options” on the table and asserting that it’s “no wonder” that Israelis view it as an existential threat. He echoed Jerusalem’s desire to see Hezbollah labeled internationally as a terrorist organization.
But the unique element of this speech was his raising of the themes he hasn’t discussed at length in front of Netanyahu and Peres. He asked the young Israelis to put themselves in the shoes of Palestinians, and spoke of the difficulties faced by Palestinians, with implied criticism for Israeli policy in the West Bank. He asserted that Israel does have partners for peace at the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. “There’s an opportunity, there is a window,” he said. And most significant of all, he called on the young to be an agent for change, and push their leaders to move forward on the cause of peace. And with this plea, he lived up the expectation that he would, in at least one area, circumvent Israel’s leadership and try over its head to communicate his vision to normal Israelis.
He did it with conviction and grace, even dealing with a heckling situation with wit, and employed Hebrew to tell the audience “atem lo lovad” or you are not alone (real meaning: “don’t listen to all of your government’s panicking as the U.S. won’t let anything happen to Israel).
Obama’s humor was a real hit with the crowd, especially his well-researched gag that reports of discord between him and Netanyahu have been a ploy to generate material for Israel’s most popular satire show, Eretz Nehederet.
One of Barack Obama’s hopes for his Israel visit is to address the Israeli public. Some commentators, such as Yoram Meital interviewed for a Forward article, have expressed the view that this lies at the crux of his trip, with him hoping to talk to Israelis about Iran over their Prime Minister’s head.
But anybody who knows Israel knows how complex the notion of addressing “Israelis” can be, with the country divided by so many religious, ethnic, geographical and class divisions. If fact, one of the least “typical” areas, if such a thing exists, is Jerusalem, often referred to within Israel as a kind of bubble inside the country. It is far more religious and far more Arab than most other areas, and has a mentality and culture all of its own.
All indications, however — including the leaked itinerary — are that Obama’s sole speech to the Israeli public will be in Jerusalem. This is despite a campaign by Israelis and invitation by Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai for him to talk to a huge crowd in the iconic Rabin Square, where the pro-peace rallies of the 1990s took place. Oh, and a tempting invitation to the settlement of Efrat where mayor Oded Revivi offered to help him “realize that the declaration of two states for two peoples is not realistic.”
A large Tel Aviv event — not large enough for him to be obviously talking over Netanyahu — would be a more natural choice than a small-ish event in Jerusalem of around 1,000 people, which is what is being discussed. This city would welcome him more, and most likely be more enthusiastic about his message. So why Jerusalem?
One explanation is logistical. It’s where his meetings are and the time and security operation for him to travel is unnecessary.
There had been a relative calm in my small part of the world — a gentrified area of south Tel Aviv where the tree-lined narrow streets are scattered with bustling restaurants and coffee shops — where my biggest concern was finding a working Telo-Fun bike machine.
Before last week, words like miklat (bomb shelter), Iron Dome, red alert siren and bus bombings were not part of my daily vocabulary or thoughts. How quickly that changes.
Mixed with the usual sounds of Bob Marley singing and chopping vegetables, an unfamiliar howl lofted into our studio apartment. “Is that a siren?” we said, in disbelief. Sure, the chances of rockets are more likely than rain in this part of the world. But the reality that one would actually be aimed for in Tel Aviv is a different story. After pausing for a second in shock, we followed the sounds of footsteps to the ground floor, where all of us living in the same building quickly discovered the lack of any bomb shelter.
White House spokesman Jay Carney refused to reiterate the official U.S. position that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, sparking a mini-frenzy on the internet.
When questioned by reporters during a press briefing, Carney dodged a reporter’s request to clarify the policy, the Times of Israel reports.
In an exchange caught on video, Carney said: “Our position has not changed.” Pressed further to name either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, Carney responded “you know our position.” He stuck to his guns even when the reporter insisted she did not know and another reporter chimed in to urge him to respond.
The female reporter who started the line of question was identified as Audio-Video News’ Connie Lawn. Real Clear Politics identified the second reporter who chimed in as Les Kinsolving, a conservative radio talk show host.
Since its upload yesterday, the video has gained over 130,000 views on YouTube and sparked a volley of heated internet comments. The fumble comes at a time when U.S.-Israel relations are high on the political docket.
See video after jump
How many clichés is it possible to stuff into one soft feature about Tel Aviv?
That was my thought as I was watching Bob Simon’s 60 Minutes segment on the city, which included, in the first three minutes, these good, old chestnuts: “dancing on the Titanic,” “the last days of Pompeii,” and “later-day Sodom.”
Were there any new ways to express this extraordinarily tired idea? How about this stinker? “There are more synagogues than bars in this city of the Jews, and remember Tel Aviv isn’t far from where Moses came down with those commandments…”
There is so much to say about this segment, but my fingers hurt too much from pounding my fist against the wall while I was watching to catalog all the ways in which it ignored reality.
There are basic reporting errors here. The piece is framed as an exploration of the political apathy of the bronzed and beautiful citizens of Tel Aviv (all of them apparently working at start-ups by day and dancing on tables doing vodka shots at night). So how can you tell this story without letting any complicating factors seep in? For one thing, only interview people that give it to you. So the two main people Simon spoke with, who take up most of the face time are Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, and Gideon Levy, the Haaretz writer best known for his searing and unrelenting portraits of Palestinian suffering. Both in their own ways offer confirmation that the city is indeed Titanic/Pompeii/Sodom.
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