Obama Finds Right Words -- Four Years Late
Words matter, they have consequences. But so do reality and history, which often matter even more, as President Obama might have learned during his visit to Israel.
Obama's trip was high on soothing rhetoric, but also laden with heavy baggage, piled up by Obama himself in his first term in office.
The president arrived in Israel, dogged by his 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, when he tracked and justified the rebirth of a Jewish state to the pain inflicted on Jews by centuries of European persecution, capped by the Holocaust.
This immediately saddled him with two strikes -- his failure to visit Israel while he was in the region and his erasure of several millennia of Jewish ties to the Promised Land. Obama completely overlooked a thousand-year reign of Jewish monarchs, followed after the Roman conquest by two millennia of continuous Jewish presence in the Holy Land.
How to undo this presidential blunder? This time, Obama was intent from the first few minutes of his arrival to get it right. Stepping off Air Force One, he declared his pleasure to be in the "historic homeland of the Jewish people," and then immediately delivered these words:
"More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. The founding of the Jewish state of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.
"Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages -- to be masters of their own fate, in their own sovereign state."
In tracing Israel's roots to Abraham -- the first Zionist -- Obama restored four millennia of Jewish history. A huge correction of his Cairo speech.
This time, he found the right words. But coming four years late, they also had the feel of making up for lost time and past mistakes.
However, this wasn't his only handicap. In pushing hard for a two-state solution and trying to build trust between Israel and the Palestinians, he again failed to match rhetoric with reality. This was most evident when he was in Ramallah and pronounced Mahmoud Abbas a fit partner in the peace process -- omitting completely Abbas's unfitness for that role.
Obama ignored Abbas's glorification of terrorist killers and his not-so-hidden objective of a one-state solution -- a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Under Abbas's Palestinian authority, "Palestine" excludes Israel from school textbooks, media, and sermons. Under Abbas, Israel is swallowed up by "Palestine."
In another blow to Obama's attempt to lay the groundwork for eventual negotiations based on mutual concessions and compromise, Abbas flatly insisted that his "Palestine," for starters, must be based on the 1967 armistice lines, with Jerusalem as its capital. Not East Jerusalem, mind you. Not land swaps, mind you. But allocation to a Palestinian state of the entire Old City with its historic Jewish Quarter, Temple Mount, the Western Wall, plus the Mount of Olives with Judaism's oldest cemetery. After that, he might wait a bit and then also take over Haifa and Tel Aviv.
Contrast this with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's signals of readiness for painful compromises and his unqualified declaration of support for a two-state solution.
Still, Obama made it appear that both leaders -- Netanyahu and Abbas -- had earned equal spurs as peacemakers. Illusion over reality.
And if Abbas needed an extra dose of reality to correct his cheery rhetoric, Hamas was only too ready to oblige with a barrage of rockets fired from Gaza against southern Israel. One rocket landed in the backyard of a Sderot house.
With Hamas in control of Gaza, how did this inconvenient state of affairs figure in Obama's peacemaking? Needless to say, he denounced Hamas and urged it to renounce violence and recognize Israel... Yeah, sure, and if my grandmother had wheels, she'd be a bus.
However well-intentioned Obama may have seemed, he couldn't shed the basic tenets of a community organizer -- talk and talk and talk until hopefully something positive comes up.
Obama may have given it his best, but he now seems more than ready to hand over the hard implementation work to his new secretary of state, John Kerry, who like his boss also professes to have an optimistic outlook. Good luck, gentlemen.
Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers