Analysis: Vintage Obama urges two states
- 21 March 2013
- From the section Middle East
President Barack Obama did not bring a new peace plan or initiative to Jerusalem but his speech, to a mainly young audience, was about as strong a message he could give that the status quo is intolerable and that peace has to be given a renewed chance.
President Obama nonetheless came with some troublesome baggage.
The failure of Washington's Middle East diplomacy in his first term - some critics would argue the result of his own insistence on securing an Israeli freeze on settlement construction - which rightly or wrongly set a pre-condition that torpedoed any progress from the outset.
Mr Obama suffers too from a curious lack of trust among Israelis.
The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made little secret of his preference for Mr Obama's Republican rivals; but more than this, ordinary Israelis seemed to have no sense that Mr Obama shared their pain or understood their predicament.
This apparent disregard was cemented in many Israeli minds when he chose to make major speeches in Cairo and Istanbul - but not Israel - at the outset of his first term.
So his mission in Jerusalem was twofold; firstly, to "connect" with the Israeli public - or at the very least with Israel's future, its youth - and secondly, to rescue "the two-state solution", the idea of separate Israeli and Palestinian states living side-by-side - from the waste-bin of history.
It was a vintage Obama performance which bore witness "to the ancient history of the Jewish people".
Their journey, he said, "to the promise of the State of Israel wound through countless generations. It involved centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice, pogroms and even genocide".
The US president linked the Jewish narrative with that of the Black American experience. But more than that he extracted a universal message: "The idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own."
And this was the cleverness of his speech - for amid the familiar statements of US policy on Syria, Iran's nuclear programme and so on, for all the praise of Jewish nationhood and the stress on the strength of US-Israel ties, Mr Obama was able to make a deft change of gear; turning the argument around by stressing the need for Palestinians to share these same values of self-determination and justice.
"It is not fair," he said, "that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day".
This was Mr Obama's moment to try to breathe renewed life into the cause of a two-state solution.
And he cited the dilemma for Israelis by quoting the words of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who said: "It is impossible to have a Jewish democratic state and at the same time to control all of Eretz (the land of) Israel."
This was a clear statement of what many people see as the fundamental choice facing Israeli society. As Mr Obama put it: "The only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realisation of an independent and viable Palestine."
"Israel," Mr Obama said, was "at a crossroads". "Peace," he said, was "the only path to true security."
Earlier in Ramallah in talks with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority Mr Obama made it clear that pre-conditions to peace talks should be abandoned.
"Even though both sides… may be engaging in activities that the other side thinks is a breach of good faith, we have to push through these things to try to get an agreement."
We've heard the rhetoric. Now all eyes will be on Mr Obama's new Secretary of State John Kerry to see what practical life can be breathed into the president's words of hope.