During a March 21 speech at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, President Obama told his audience that 'Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.' (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Obama in Israel: Some Dare Call It Victory

A speech can’t do everything. But it can signal a new day.

BY Marilyn Katz

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As a young Palestinian wrote in a response to the speech for the New York Times, 'It was surprising, to say the least: the president of the United States using the word "occupation," '—a term that deniers (like the AIPAC and Netanyahu) 'don’t want to hear.'

By the time President Obama landed in Israel last week, the bloggers on the Left had already told us in great detail what he would and wouldn’t do: how he would remain silent on the issue of Palestine; why the trip would just consist of congratulatory cozying up to Netanyahu.

So it’s not surprising that after Obama defied these predictions, the “glass-half empty” pundits, rather than face the fact that they were wrong, now focus on what they think he should have said.

For those who have a penchant for making sour lemons out of lemons, don’t bother to read this. For those who prefer to make lemonade—or better yet, history—read on.

As someone who on a visit to the Middle East only a year ago was told by friends—both Palestinian and Israeli—that few in Israel would even let themselves think, let alone talk, about the occupation, and as someone who has lived in a country where the bellicose American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has dominated discussions on Israel for nearly a half -century, I found the president’s speech extraordinary. I believe it has the potential not only to transform the narratives in Israel and the United States, but to spur the conditions for the two state solution that is the only real basis for justice, and therefore peace, in the Middle East.

No other U.S. president has spoken to the Israelis as Obama did. Yes, as he should have, and as I believe he believes, the President expressed strong support for Israel’s existence and the continued friendship of the United States. That was to be expected. What was unexpected, even by those like me who believed that he had the opportunity to speak bluntly about Palestine, was his willingness to do so and the eloquence and strength with which he did.

As a young Palestinian wrote in a response to the speech for the New York Times, “It was surprising, to say the least: the president of the United States using the word ‘occupation,’ ”—a term that deniers (like the AIPAC and Netanyahu) “don’t want to hear.” Obama’s demand not only for peace, but also for justice for the Palestinian people and an end to occupation, echoed long-standing calls by progressive Israelis and Americans (as well as the entire Arab world) but to my memory constituted the first such call by a sitting U.S. president. That he declared the reality, rarely spoken in Israel, that continued occupation is not only unjust but threatens the country’s moral fabric and future, made this a speech a long-awaited turning point for those of us who have long spoken this truth.

A glutton for punishment, I have read the self-serving diatribes of those who say, ”But where’s the policy?” “Why didn’t he lay out a plan?” “Why didn’t he give an ultimatum to Netanyahu?”  I think they miss the point and show little understanding of how history is made.

Despite the protestations of those seeking a savior, the president was correct to note that change is a process that can be led not by one or another of the Knesset leaders, but only by the people of Israel themselves—and most likely, by the young.

It is a lesson that Obama knows well from his own experience, having being carried to victory twice by youth-driven mass movements. It is a lesson we should know well from the experience of the civil rights movement, the suffragists or the Congress of Industrial Unions. It is people who create the room for change; only then can leaders take advantage of that space and move forward. President Obama’s words were an encouragement—and from the emails I have received, a welcome one—to the millions of Israelis who agree with him about the need for a two-state solution.

In his speech there was also an important message to those of us in America.  His use of the terms “occupation” and “justice,” and his call for Israelis to put themselves in the shoes of Palestinians, were a stern rebuff to those who, when confronted with such phrases, label the speakers “anti-Semitic” or “self-hating Jews.” It is a new day for national politics around Israel—a fact underscored by a letter circulated just before Obama left, and signed by 26 U.S. senators, that called upon Obama to make discussion of a two-state solution a focus of the trip.

One speech, even a great one, is not enough to change the world. That is up to us. But for those organizing in the U.S. and in Israel for justice and a sovereign state for Palestinians, and for full rights for the Arabs—both Muslim and Christian—who live in Israel, it is an incentive to continue, to be bold, to give leaders the space to move forward or, if that fails, force them forward.

Marilyn Katz is a writer, consultant and long-time political activist. She is president of MK Communications, a partner in Democracy Partners and a founder and co-chair of the newly formed Chicago Women Take Action.

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