Can Obama inspire youth vote in Israel?
President Barack Obama’s message to Israel last week was both powerful and urgent: You can’t go on like this. The status quo is not a viable option.
That is a direct challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who acts like Israel can go on like this for the foreseeable future. Many Israelis are strongly tempted to believe, with Netanyahu, that the threat of terrorism and the occupation of the West Bank are manageable problems.
“It can be tempting,” Obama said when addressing an audience of Israeli students in Jerusalem, “to put aside the frustrations and sacrifices that come with the pursuit of peace, particularly when Iron Dome repels rockets, barriers keep out suicide bombers [and] there are so many other pressing issues that demand your attention.”
The president’s warning: Don’t be tempted. “Peace is the only path to true security,” he said. “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.”
Israel has three options. None is good.
The status quo means continued Israeli control of a hostile population. “It is not fair,” Obama told Israelis, “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 their movements.”
The president used the term “occupation,” which is unacceptable to many Israelis. “There is no occupation in our own land,” Naftali Bennett, a senior minister in the new Israeli government, has said. But what Obama referred to as “the grinding status quo” is debilitating for Israel and likely disastrous in the long run, as the Palestinian population becomes larger and more desperate.
Neither of the remaining options is ideal. A one-state solution means a binational state in which Palestinians will become a majority within a few decades. A two-state solution entails the risk of a hostile state on Israel’s borders. And returning Palestinian refugees would pose a more serious terrorist threat to Israel than they do now because they could seek refuge within their own borders. “A Palestinian state could bring more attacks on us,” a student who attended Obama’s speech told the Washington Post.
So three choices, none good. The status quo is the easiest one to pick because it doesn’t involve making any changes. But President George W. Bush and Obama have endorsed a two-state solution. So have most Israelis. So have Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority, though neither has done anything to make it possible. While a two-state solution is the most difficult option in the short run, in the long run it may be the least disastrous.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon understood that, but he became tragically incapacitated by a stroke seven years ago. Last week Obama took up Sharon’s message. In his speech to Israeli students, Obama quoted Sharon: “It is impossible to have a Jewish, democratic state [and] at the same time to control all of the Land of Israel. If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all.”
Sharon argued that Zionists want three things: a Greater Israel (including the West Bank), a Jewish state and a democracy. They can have any two but not all three. A Greater Israel would eventually become majority Arab. If it were a democracy, it would no longer be a Jewish state. If it were a Jewish state, it would no longer be a democracy.
Sharon believed that Zionism could be preserved only by giving up the dream of a Greater Israel. He began a policy of unilateral Israeli disengagement from the occupied territories. That policy was discredited, however, by the Hamas takeover of Gaza following the Israeli disengagement. To many Israelis, Gaza stands as a warning of what could happen if Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank.
That’s the risk of a two-state solution. Is it worth the risk? Obama insists it is.
Israelis are concerned that the United States will try to impose a settlement. But Obama did not go to the Middle East with a peace deal in his pocket. “Politically,” Obama said, “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.”
There are signs that bipartisan support for Israel may be eroding. Americans continue to be much more sympathetic to Israel than to the Palestinians. Underneath that strong support, however, partisan differences are growing.
The March Pew Research Center poll finds 66 percent of Republicans and 39 percent of Democrats more sympathetic to Israel than to the Palestinians. (Forty-three percent of Democrats say they sympathize with both sides, or neither side). Republican sympathy for Israel is up markedly, by 17 points, since 1978. Democratic support is down five points. Ominously, only 36 percent of young Americans sympathize with Israel.
In the end, peace is not possible unless both sides in the Middle East become convinced that the status quo is intolerable. Palestinians have felt that way for 46 years. Israelis are not there yet. Obama urged young Israelis to do something young people are always inclined to do: challenge the status quo. “Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take risks,” Obama said. “You must create the change that you want to see.”
Obama’s peace plan is to challenge the status quo. He’s relying on young voters in Israel, as he does here, to do that.
Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi said in the New York Times, “Obama finally learned to speak Israeli.” “Next time there’s an announcement of settlement expansion,” he predicted, “large parts of the public will react with anger rather than indifference.’’
If they do, it will mean Obama’s mission was a success.
PHOTO (Top): President Barack Obama waves after addressing Israeli students at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem March 21, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
PHOTO (Insert A): Students listen to President Barack Obama talk at the Jerusalem Convention Center in Jerusalem, March 21, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing
PHOTO (Insert B): President Barack Obama walks with Rabbi Israel Meir Lau in the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, March 22, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed