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.”
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.”