This New York Times editorial calls on President Obama to explain to Israelis why “freezing settlements and reviving peace talks is clearly in their interest.” The Times is alarmed because “Israeli leaders do not often risk being at odds with an American president, but polls show broad support for Mr. Netanyahu’s resistance” on the settlement issue. Presumably, the Times would like Obama, “a skilled communicator,” to speak directly to Israelis through some sort of address, as Israeli leftists have urged.
It’s a speech I’d like to hear. For in order to persuade Israelis, Obama would first have to connect with them. And to do that, he would have to embrace aspects of the Israeli national narrative.
For example, Obama would have to show an appreciation of the Jewish connection to the land of Israel. In his Cairo speech, Obama ignored this history, pointing to the Holocaust as the source of Israel’s legitimacy. This didn’t bother me. There was no need in that speech for Obama to go back to Abraham, Issac, and Jacob — it was enough to reaffirm before an Arab audience that the U.S. fully backs Israel’s legitimacy.
But that wouldn’t be enough for an Israeli audience. And it would bring a smile to my face to hear Obama attempt to mollify Israelis by talking about their historical connection to the land of Israel and whatever other conciliatory messages he might throw in.
But no amount of flattery is likely to persuade Israelis that they should totally freeze construction in and around well-established settlements in the hope that the Palestinians will one day make peace with them. The Times is correct that Obama is a skilled communicator. He can wow a crowd that is already inclined to agree with him and, perhaps, persuade the undecided. However, he has never shown that he can change the minds of those whose positions have already formed — a tall order for anyone.
The limits of Obama’s communication skills are evident in the health care debate. But recall too that even his famous Philadelphia speech about Rev. Wright, however much it was praised by his fans in the MSM, failed to stem the anti-Obama tide that was running through his own party. Obama quickly had to revise his position, and still limped to the finish line, losing most of the important late contests and securing the nomination on the strength of his early successes. And during the general election campaign, Obama wisely focused not on attempting to change the minds of swing voters on key issues, but rather on using his communication skills to make them think he was on their side with respect to these matters.
This would not be an option if Obama were to implore Israelis to agree to a total settlement freeze. For a speech to work, Obama would have to moderate his position. There are reports that he is already doing so, in order to reach a compromise with the Israeli government.
The upshot is that the speech the Times contemplates is a non-starter. The only speech it makes sense for Obama to deliver in Israel would alienate the Arabs he has worked so hard to win over.
As a far more cogent editorial in the Washington Post explains, therein lies the folly of Obama’s overbearing demands regarding settlements: it put him in a position where, to be seen in Israel as an honest broker, he now must act in ways that would undermine his status with the Arabs. Had he accepted Israel’s concessions on settlements and not overreached, he would not have stumbled into this dilemma.
That the New York Times must now ask Obama to salvage the situation by delivering an impossible speech demonstrates not only that the Times is desperate but also that it is clueless.
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