Obama in Israel: Warm Reception, Great Speech, But Will Anything Change?

President Barack Obama was warmly received on his first state trip to Israel. Sidestepping the Israeli Knesset, the president made an appeal for renewing the peace process directly to the Israeli people, declaring, “Peace is necessary” and “Peace is the only path to true security.” He urged the end of settlements on the West Bank, a return to negotiations with the Palestinians and the eventual acceptance of a two-state solution, to which both sides in the decades-old conflict claim to be committed.

President Obama said: “Negotiations will be necessary, but there is little secret about where they must lead—two states for two peoples. There will be differences about how to get there; there are going to be hard choices along the way.”

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While the president’s visit was for the most part positively received, enthusiasm for the charm offensive in Israel was not universal. “All the great people in the world come to visit us,” said Latin Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah. “They arrive and depart, and our reality does not change. We [Palestinian Christians] are in the same situation.”

Speaking before a group of young people on March 21 at the Jerusalem Convention Center, President Obama said that Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state and that Israelis have the right to insist upon security. But, he added, “Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace and that an independent Palestine must be viable—that real borders will have to be drawn.” He described the need for a Palestinian state as an issue of “fairness.”

“The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized,” he added. “Put yourself in their shoes—look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair 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 the movements, not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or displace Palestinian families from their homes.”

He said, “Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.” He told the students that their hopes “must light the way forward.

“Look to a future in which Jews, Muslims and Christians can all live in peace and greater prosperity in this Holy Land. Believe in that,” the president said. “Most of all look to the future that you want for your own children—a future in which a Jewish, democratic, vibrant state is protected and accepted, for this time and for all time.”

According to Patriarch Emeritus Sabbah, “regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no external pressure can really change things. Only Israel can decide to proceed on the path of peace or to maintain the status quo. No one can change this situation from the outside. Everything is in the hands of Israel.” As Holy Week approached, Patriarch Sabbah noted on March 21 the difficulties Palestinians Christians and Muslims face in gaining access to the holy places in Jerusalem. Patriarch Sabbah said, “Here to pray you do not go directly to God. One must first pass by the military to ask for permission.”

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4 years 7 months ago
“Obama In Israel,” (Signs of the Times April 8-15, 2013) seemed to take a somewhat pessimistic stance on the peace process. I prefer to be hopeful, especially in light of the wisdom our President showed by refusing to resort to pie in the sky promises and instead reminding both sides in the conflict that peace is something they must make compromises for. Both Israelis and Palestinians must take serious action if the conflict is ever to end. When in Israel, Barack Obama reminded the Israelis that “continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable– that real borders will have to be drawn.” And while speaking to the Palestinian people in Ramallah he reminded them that demands for pre-conditions for negotiations were also counterproductive as “The core issue right now is, how do we get sovereignty for the Palestinian people, and how do we assure security for the Israeli people?” President Obama noted that “ . . .if we solve those two problems, the settlement problem will be solved.” It is important to be mindful of the fact that there is a lot of healing that will have to happen. We feel the pain of Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah who mourns the fact that in order for Palestinians to cross the border into Israel to pray at the holy sites they must first pass through security barriers. And we also feel the pain of Israelis who lived through the Second Intifada where over 1,000 of their loved ones were blown up in suicide bombings. They know all too well why those security barriers are there. But let us not be reduced to cynicism or despair. Let us take hope in the promise of a renewed effort for peace -- one that thanks to our own President is grounded in the tough hard realities that the parties will face. Rev. James Loughran, S.A.

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