Obama Talks Tough on Israel Ahead of Netanyahu Meeting

President Barack Obama makes a statement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

President Obama's efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East have been scattered: He calls for new relations, but has prolonged inherited wars and started a new one; he pressures some tyrants while supporting others; he condemns governments that open fire on civilians, but increases our use of drone attacks.

However, he marked a major accomplishment yesterday by unifying a diverse set of parties from that region in agreement on one issue: They all objected to his speech.

"Syria accuses Obama of meddling in its affairs," reported the AP.

"Obama speech greeted with wariness," declared the Washington Post.

"Hamas, Netanyahu reject Obama speech," announced UPI.

To get Netanyahu and Hamas in agreement isn't easy, but there they were, both denouncing the president's balanced and honest appraisal of how to move toward lasting, sustainable peace, showing that as much as they hate each other, now and then they agree.

The build-up to the president's speech suggested it was his time to offer a coherent and fresh explanation of how, when and where we push American values in the Middle East. Sadly, it is nearly impossible to achieve a fresh start when you have troops on the ground, planes overhead and no end in sight.

I don't reject speech as forcefully as Middle East leaders did, but it wasn't a game-changer for me either. The fact is that it will be ideologically inconsistent why we send military into some countries and sternly-worded reprimands to others; but I also think it is okay to acknowledge that practical concerns steer and trump ideology at times.

Even if we believed we should send our military to aid any civilians against regime brutality - which I don't believe most Americans would argue - it would still be impractical to pressure Syria in that way. It is preferable that we develop and operate a series of levers - diplomatic and financial, as well as military. This is a complicated and nuanced task that, for better or for worse, doesn't always fit into a clear black-and-white ideology.

Similarly, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is full of nuance and there are better approaches that simply standing with one party or the other. A two-state solution is clearly necessary to achieve peace and stability, and it is a stance that cuts through the absurdity of being "Pro-Israel" vs. "Pro-Palestine." A two-state solution is Pro-Peace, Pro-Both.

Some Americans are stunned that the president would call for the 1967 borders as a starting place in these negotiations and insulted that the president wouldn't bow to pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to remove the reference. Other Americans angrily decry America's support of Israel and the role our country will play in objecting to a Palestinian statehood resolution at the United Nations this fall.

You can add both parties to the list of those upset at Obama's speech, but that doesn't make him wrong. He is blending our values, our alliances and our practical considerations into a sensible plan that may not meet the ideological purity of advocates on either side, but actually makes sense.

One of the few organizations that lauded the president was J Street, the progressive, pro-peace Jewish advocacy group.

As J Street's president wrote:

"We share, however, the president’s deep concern that the status quo today between Israel and the Palestinians is unsustainable, and that 'the dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.' He is correct in saying that Israel will only find security through granting the Palestinian people their freedom, and the Palestinian people will only achieve freedom if Israel finds security."

The statement goes on to hope Obama turns these words into actions, which is, of course, where promises get compromised and values bend under the weight of realpolitik.


The president's address, trumpeted as a singular speech, really felt more like one in a series of conversations with the country. And that, I happen to like. When we went into Libya, it was without that national conversation.

Now, each time the president speaks to the nation - as he did about Libya, Osama bin Laden, and yesterday - he is engaging that discussion I wish we'd had before joining a third war. Each time he speaks, it gives the American people the chance to debate, elected officials an opportunity to refine inherently complicated positions, and Republican presidential hopefuls the moment to reveal they don't have any more coherent an alternative.

So, Mr. President, you didn't sell me on a fresh start; but you don't need to. More communication and debate is better than less; more acknowledgement of the gray is better than a commitment to the black-and-white; and more opportunities for us to criticize and challenge you is part of what makes us the kind of democracy we would like to see more of in the Middle East.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."