Day Two of Obama in Israel/Palestine — Obama visits Ramallah and addresses the Israeli people

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Watch President Obama’s speech to students at the Jerusalem International Convention Center:

Here is the segment of Obama’s talk that focused on the peace process from his prepared remarks. He went off script a bit to talk about how Palestinian children he met with remind him of his daughters:

Today, Israel is at a crossroads. It can be tempting to put aside the frustrations and sacrifices that come with the pursuit of peace – particularly when an Iron Dome repels rockets, barriers keep out suicide bombers, and so many other pressing issues demand your attention. And I know that only Israelis can make the fundamental decisions about your country’s future.

I also know that not everyone in this hall will agree with what I have to say about peace. I recognize that there are those who are not simply skeptical about peace, but question its underlying premise, and that’s a part of democracy and the discourse between our two countries. But it is important to be open and honest with one another. Politically, given the strong bipartisan support for Israel in America, the easiest thing for me to do would be to put this issue aside, and express unconditional support for whatever Israel decides to do. But I want you to know that I speak to you as a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future, and I ask you to consider three points.

First, peace is necessary. Indeed, it is the only path to true security. You can be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future. Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, 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. Given the frustration in the international community, Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation. And given the march of technology, the only way to truly protect the Israeli people is through the absence of war – because no wall is high enough, and no Iron Dome is strong enough, to stop every enemy from inflicting harm.

This truth is more pronounced given the changes sweeping the Arab World. I recognize that with the uncertainty in the region – people in the streets, changes in leadership, the rise of non-secular parties in politics –it is tempting to turn inward. But this is precisely the time to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve for peace. As more governments respond to popular will, the days when Israel could seek peace with a handful of autocratic leaders are over. Peace must be made among peoples, not just governments. No one step can change overnight what lies in the hearts and minds of millions. But progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin, while sidelining extremists who thrive on conflict and division.

Second, peace is just. There is no question that Israel has faced Palestinian factions who turned to terror, and leaders who missed historic opportunities. That is why security must be at the center of any agreement. And there is no question that the only path to peace is through negotiation. That is why, despite the criticism we’ve received, the United States will oppose unilateral efforts to bypass negotiations through the United Nations.

But the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. 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 her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. 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.

Only you can determine what kind of democracy you will have. But remember that as you make these decisions, you will define not simply the future of your relationship with the Palestinians – you will define the future of Israel as well. As Ariel Sharon said, “It is impossible to have a Jewish, democratic state and at the same time to control all of Eretz Israel. If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all.” Or, from a different perspective, think of what David Grossman said shortly after losing his son, as he described the necessity of peace – “a peace of no choice” he said, “must be approached with the same determination and creativity as one approaches a war of no choice.”

Of course, Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with anyone who is dedicated to its destruction. But while I know you have had differences with the Palestinian Authority, I believe that you do have a true partner in President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. Over the last few years, they have built institutions and maintained security on the West Bank in ways that few would have imagined a decade ago. So many Palestinians – including young people – have rejected violence as a means of achieving their aspirations.

Which leads to my third point: peace is possible. I know it doesn’t seem that way. There will always be a reason to avoid risk, and there’s a cost for failure. There will always be extremists who provide an excuse to not act. And there is something exhausting about endless talks about talks; the daily controversies, and grinding status quo.

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, and hard choices along the way. Arab States must adapt to a world that has changed. The days when they could condemn Israel to distract their people from a lack of opportunity are over. Now is the time for the Arab World to take steps toward normalized relations with Israel. Meanwhile, Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state, and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security. 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. I’ve suggested principles on territory and security that I believe can be the basis for talks. But for the moment, put aside the plans and process. I ask you, instead, to think about what can be done to build trust between people.

Four years ago, I stood in Cairo in front of an audience of young people. Politically, religiously, they must seem a world away. But the things they want – they’re not so different from you. The ability to make their own decisions; to get an education and a good job; to worship God in their own way; to get married and have a family. The same is true of the young Palestinians that I met in Ramallah this morning, and of young Palestinians who yearn for a better life in Gaza.

That is where peace begins – not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people; not just in a carefully designed process, but in the daily connections that take place among those who live together in this land, and in this sacred city of Jerusalem. Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.

I know this is possible. Look to the bridges being built in business and civil society by some of you here today. Look at young people who have not yet learned a reason to mistrust, and those who have learned to overcome a legacy of mistrust that they inherited from their parents because of the simple recognition that we hold more hopes in common than the fear that drives us apart. Your voices must be louder than the extremists who would drown them out. Your 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. Look to the future that you want for your own children – a future in which a Jewish, democratic state is protected and accepted, for this time and for all time.

There will be many voices that say this change is not possible. But remember this: Israel is the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world. Israel has the wisdom to see the world as it is, but also the courage to see the world as it should be. Ben Gurion once said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” Sometimes, the greatest miracle is recognizing that the world can change. After all, that is a lesson that the world learned from the Jewish people.

There was a heckler during Obama’s speech:

White House press pool reports say the shouting was about Jonathan Pollard:

There was a heckler about 15 minutes into remarks. Man standing to Obama’s left back near center press platform began shouting in Hebrew. A reliable Hebrew speaker seated near pool says the shouting was about Pollard. We presume calling for his release. Pool couldn’t see what happened to the heckler.

Here are some responses to Obama’s speech circulated by the Institute for Middle East Understanding –

Diana Buttu, Ramallah-based analyst, former legal advisor to President Abbas and Palestinian negotiators and former PLO spokesperson:

“It was clear from the outset that President Obama was coming to the region with absolutely nothing. His demand that Palestinians start negotiations without the minimum of a settlement freeze and while Israel continues to eat up Palestinian land flies in the face of logic and demonstrates that he is not interested in challenging Israel, but instead interested in allowing it to remain a rogue state.”

Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the Jerusalem Fund and the Palestine Center in Washington, DC:

“President Obama’s speech was important for both who it was delivered to and its content. By speaking to Israeli youth about the future, he signaled clearly that he doesn’t believe progress is possible with the current generation of Israeli leadership. But he also, very problematically, presented a future of peace as a choice Israelis might make instead of an obligation they must fulfill. The freedom, dignity and rights of Palestinians in refugee camps and under Israeli military occupation should not be subject to Israeli choices but rather be demanded by an international community appalled by their continued subjugation. That the President of the United States, the ostensible even-handed mediator between Israelis and Palestinians, frames the matter in this way is indicative of just how resigned he has become.

“Reading between the lines, this speech suggests that President Obama will do little more than pay lip service to an outcome he refuses to put the muscle of his office behind. Rather, what he has told Israelis is that the US will stand by Israel regardless of what choices it makes – even if that choice continues to be perpetual occupation. That is, to say the least, unbecoming of the leader of the free world.

“He has, however, signaled a warning to Israelis that international isolation in response to its apartheid system is growing. Years from now, as international pressure mounts to end Israeli apartheid, this speech will be noted for its Cassandra-like warnings that came several decades too late.”

Noura Erakat, co-editor of Jadaliyya, and member of the legal support network of the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Refugee and Residency Rights:

“President Obama’s speech makes clear that whether or not Palestinians enjoy freedom is a choice for Israelis to make. He offers that they should do that based on either their empathy for Palestinians, and if not, for strategic and self-interested reasons. Rather than reaffirm the equality and dignity of both peoples, President Obama perpetuates that Palestinian freedom is secondary to Israeli concerns and contingent upon their preference. This is quite a disappointing message when Israel’s behavior for the past two decades has destroyed the possibility of the two-state solution.”

Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada:

“Obama’s speech offered a vision of a two-state solution that will sound attractive to many people and even paid lip service to ‘justice’ and ‘self-determination’ for Palestinians. But no one should allow themselves to be taken too far aloft by this language. The hard reality remains that Obama will do nothing to bring even this limited vision about and in fact is doing much to block it. While he mildly criticized settlements, on Monday the US delegation boycotted an important debate in the UN Human Rights Council on Israeli settlements. Obama’s speech may be seen as a last gasp for a ‘two-state solution’ that has no chance of being implemented. It’s time for us to do what Obama won’t do, which is to look beyond a narrow vision of apartheid-like segregation dressed up in the slogan ‘two states for two peoples.’ There is already one state on the ground. It’s time to make it democratic.”

Earlier today Obama visited Ramallah:

Graffiti against the visit of the US President Barack Obama to the West Bank, Ramallah, March 21, 2013. (Photo: Keren Manor/

The following is a press pool report of Obama’s visit with Mahmoud Abbas:

WH Pool Report No. 4 – Bilat with POTUS, Abbas

About 11: 10 A.M., pool was led in to an austere room with POTUS and President Mahmoud Abbas seated under U.S. and Palestinian flags. Some conversation was underway as we entered, but could not hear.

Principals were asked to shake hands. They stood and did so with POTUS wearing a big grin. Delegations were seated in fairly low wooden chairs on either side of the room. At quick glance, U.S. delegation included John Kerry, Pete Rouse, Valerie Jarrett, Tom Donilon, Ben Rhodes, Dan Pfeiffer, Jay Carney and one or two others. Awaiting names on Palestinian delegation.

There were no words of substance, but Obama and some staff seemed puzzled when not all press immediately cleared. It was explained that another wave was coming in. The handshake was done again.

During the wait, Kerry said to Abbas who was wearing a blue tie: “Nice tie, Mr. President.”

It appeared to pooler that POTUS was chewing gum. Also appeared that way at tech tour earlier, which is still forthcoming.

Pool was cleared from room after about 5 minutes and is now holding again awaiting presser.

And another:

President Obama and the white haired Abbas walked along the red carpet, the US leader smiling and waving to the press, to a shaded wooden stage in the compound.

Secret Service agents trailed the president, holding open the door of one of his Washington DC – plated limousines, from which fluttered US and Palestinian flags.

The leaders stood to attention as a military band first played the US national anthem and then the Palestinian anthem.

Then they stepped off the stage and followed a moustachioed senior officer with a sword to his lips, to inspect an honor guard.

POTUS and Abbas then turned on their heels and disappeared out of view into PA buildings for their talks.

Also spotted walking through the warm sunshine were Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security advisor Tom Donilon.

The courtyard had earlier resounded to the skirl of bagpipes as the band marched in to set up. Armed security agents watched over the compound from surrounding buildings.

On the wall to the left of the stage was a large mural picturing Abbas and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

You can read the full text of Obama and Abbas’s remarks here.

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President Obama meets Palestinian girls who performed dabke for him at the El-Bireh Youth Center near Ramallah. (Photo: Twitter)

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