A true friend does not standby idly by as his buddy stands on the top of a building on the brink of jumping. Nor is a true friend a "Yes" man who reflexively nods his head no matter what, always doling out dollops of praise. Rather, a true friend is unafraid to grab her pal by the shoulders and yell, "stop!"
On Thursday, speaking to young Israelis at the Jerusalem Convention Center, President Obama demonstrated what true friendship looks like. As the Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev tweeted, "... no U.S. president has ever spoken like this to Israelis." Yes, the president spoke of America's unshakable commitment to Israeli's security and the special friendship that exists between the two countries emanating from shared values and interests. Yes, the president marveled at Israel's technological prowess and innovation economy. But unlike so many other American leaders and supporters of Israel, he did not stop with these obligatory pleasantries.
Though Prime Minister Netanyahu recently formed a coalition government dominated by hardliners who want to expand settlements in the West Bank and focus on Iran rather than achieving peace with the Palestinians, President Obama appealed directly to Israeli youth with an impassioned case for peace. As the president noted, he realized this was not politically expedient; to the contrary, "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." The president delivered hard truths, speaking "as a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future."
The president told Israelis that missile defense systems and physical barriers alone cannot ensure Israel's long-term security. He stressed that the country's demographics are a ticking time-bomb, and thus, the choice between preserving the status-quo or partitioning the land into two states for two peoples is, in fact, a false dichotomy. If a Palestinian state is not established, Arabs will outnumber Jews in what is now Israel and the Jewish democracy of Israel will be in jeopardy. The establishment of a Palestinian state is therefore vital for Israel's future.
But President Obama also went beyond the rational, security argument for a Palestinian state, making an emotional and philosophical plea. He had spoken earlier of how "the journey to the promise of the State of Israel wound through countless generations" and "involved centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice, pogroms and even genocide," before Jews fulfilled the Zionist dream. He then asked his audience to think about the plight of the Palestinians, telling them that they, too "have a right to be a free people in their own land." The same ideological underpinnings that have guided Zionism and the State of Israel also speak to the need for a Palestinian homeland.
While the President of the United States cannot snap his fingers and bring about the two-state solution that is key to Israel's security and its future, President Obama reminded the young people of Israel that change is possible, peace is attainable and their actions both as everyday people and as the future leaders of their country can advance prospects for peace. "Sometimes the greatest miracle," he said, "is recognizing that the world can change." In the face of uncertainty and hostility in the region and right-wing hardliners dominating their own government, President Obama, essentially told young Israelis, "Yes you can!" And, he reminded them that Israel and its people can always count on their greatest friend, the United States of America.