News Column

Obama Calls on Israeli Youth to Promote Peace

March 22, 2013

President Obama called on Israeli students Thursday to promote peace with Palestinians. "Only you can determine what kind of democracy you will have," Obama told several hundred diverse students -- Jews, Muslims and Christians -- in a speech given in a Jerusalem convention center. He called on them to remember that when they make those decisions, they "will define the future of Israel as well."

Obama said the only way for Israelis and Palestinians to achieve peace is through negotiations. He tried to reassure the Israelis that the U.S.-Israeli bond is strong enough for Israelis to take risks for peace.

Obama noted that Israelis "live in a neighborhood where many of your neighbors have rejected your right to exist. Your parents lived through war after war to ensure the survival of the Jewish state. Your children grow up knowing that people they have never met hate them because of who they are, in a region that is changing underneath your feet."

At the same time, the president told them, "the Palestinian people's right to self-determination and justice must be recognized" not only for the sake of the Palestinians, but to bring peace to Israel.

He asked the students to put themselves in the Palestinians' shoes, to "look at the world through their eyes." He added: "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."

The president also addressed the United States' bond with Israel, noting the security relationship between the two nations has "never been stronger."

Reiterating that Israel has a "right to defend itself," Obama called on Hamas to renounce violence, and affirmed the U.S. stance that Hezbollah is "a terrorist organization."

After hecklers briefly interrupted Obama, he said. "This is part of the lively debate that we talked about. ... I wouldn't feel comfortable if I didn't have at least one heckler."

Many of the Israeli university students -- who had to win a lottery to obtain tickets -- spent hours on the road to catch a glimpse of the American president they had heard so much about.

Although some Israeli politicians may have felt snubbed by Obama's decision to speak to ordinary Israelis and not to parliament, the students said they were glad Obama didn't cave in to diplomatic pressure.

Binyamin Mittelman, a 27-year-old student from Ben-Gurion University, in the southern city of Beersheva, called the speech "inspiring. He reminded us that we, the younger generation, can make a difference."

Reut Caspi, an Orthodox Jewish student at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, agreed with the president that Palestinian children deserve to live in peace, "but not at the expense of Israeli children."

Joseph Schwartz, another Bar-Ilan student, expressed doubts that the Palestinian public is ready to recognize that Jews have a right to their own country. "I doubt Obama's speech, which acknowledged Jewish history and Jewish statehood, would receive the same positive response in Ramallah," he said.

College student Randa Sharkiya, an Arab citizen of Israel, said she was gratified that Obama supports a Palestinian state. Yet she was offended by the lack of outreach to Israel's many minorities. "The entire speech was Jewish country, Jewish, Jewish Jewish," said Sharkiya, dressed in an Islamic head scarf. "All I kept thinking was, 'What about us?'"

President Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres raise glasses in a toast after Peres awarded Obama the Israeli Medal of Distinction.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013