Frank words from Obama in Israel

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor

image captionMr Obama's audience of Israeli students received his speech warmly

Before President Obama left Washington his staff made it clear that he would not be bringing a new peace plan with him.

When Air Force One landed at Tel Aviv airport, the president said he had come to Jerusalem and Ramallah to listen to Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

But on his second afternoon, in a set piece speech to young Israelis in Jerusalem's main conference centre, he laid out where he believed both Israel and the Palestinians should be going.

The only good future for both peoples, President Obama said, had to include an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. His young Israeli audience clapped enthusiastically.

The continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories that the Palestinians want for their state was, he said, counterproductive to the cause of peace, and Israelis had to realise that.

An independent Palestine would, the President said, have to be "viable". That word rules out the limited autonomy suggested by some members of Mr Netanyahu's government, enclaves that Palestinians refer to as "bantustans".

Critical friend

He asked his audience to put themselves in the shoes of a Palestinian child, growing up without a state, living in the presence of a foreign army controlling the movements of their parents.

It is not fair, he said, when violence by Jewish settlers against Palestinians goes unpunished, when Palestinian farmers cannot work their lands, when Palestinians are displaced from their homes.

And the Israeli audience, not all of them but very many, applauded loudly again. It was classic Obama, reminiscent of his first run for President, when he used his skill with words to create a mood.

Polls show Israelis want peace via Palestinian independence, but don't believe it can happen. President Obama tried to make them believe.

He did some straight talking. The calculation appears to be that frank words about what would be needed for peace was possible because he had worked hard to establish his credentials as Israel's friend.

Throughout his time here he has praised Israel's achievements to the skies.

image captionDespite their previous disagreements, Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu tried to strike a jovial note

The President paid tribute to Jewish history in this part of the world by viewing the Dead Sea Scrolls, and by praising Israel's modern hi-tech economy.

He reminded Israelis of the depth and scale of the military and intelligence co-operation between the two allies, of the money the US paid for the development of Iron Dome, the missile that can shoot down rockets fired from Gaza that right now is the most popular weapons system in the country.

And he pledged, once again, that he would never allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

Mr Obama has even tried to seem matey with Mr Netanyahu, not easy when their previous fallings-out have been so public, and a little awkward because of the president's somewhat professorial manner.

At Tel Aviv airport President Obama took off his jacket and strolled in the sun. Next to him Mr Netanyahu took a quick glance and did the same.

Nothing was to be allowed to come between them. They even wore almost identical white shirts and blue ties.

Hopes dashed

President Obama's words about a Palestinian state might not convince many Palestinians.

In 2009 in Cairo you could feel their barometer of optimism rising as the newly elected president - middle name, as he reminded them, Hussein - expressed a degree of sympathy with their aspirations and their history that they believed might change their lives.

But nothing has changed, and he has been accused repeatedly of raising their hopes only to betray them.

Four years ago President Obama took the lead in pushing for a freeze in Israeli settlement building. Israel conceded a limited freeze, but has made clear it has no intention of allowing another one.

So President Obama has lowered the bar. He told the Palestinians not to expect pre-conditions before talks, but re-emphasised what negotiations needed to achieve - Palestinian self-determination.

image captionIsrael has made clear it will not allow a freeze on settlements in occupied territory

President Obama seems to be accomplishing what he came here to do. His audience for the Jerusalem speech was made up of young Israelis. He chose to go over the heads of Israel's political class.

Extraordinarily for an American head of state in his second term, he presented himself almost as a political insurgent, telling them that politicians would only take risks if the people pressure them to do so. He told them they had to create the change.

The implication was that it would not come from Israel's leaders on their own. Mr Netanyahu's government depends on the votes of the Jewish Home party, led by Naftali Bennett, who has said allowing a Palestinian state would be national suicide for Israel.

The truth is that the way things are now, neither Israelis nor Palestinians could deliver the necessary compromises for a peace deal, even if they could agree a form of words. Both sets of leaders face too many internal political problems.

President Abbas does not even have authority over Gaza, which is run by Hamas. It talks of a long term truce with Israel, but its charter calls for the destruction of the Israeli state.

President Obama is good at delivering speeches. He is less good at delivering results. For all his talk of an American pivot to Asia, he is going to have to stay involved in the Middle East.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict still has the capacity to send out shockwaves, not just through the Middle East, but across the wider world. Like it or not, it stays high on the White House agenda.