President Obama addressing the U.N. General Assembly today.(Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)
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Obama, Annotated

The subtext of his United Nations address

Marc Tracy
September 21, 2011
President Obama addressing the U.N. General Assembly today.(Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Now I know that for many in this hall, one issue stands as a test for these principles— and for American foreign policy: the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.1

1 Is the problem that everyone around the world is fixated on the Mideast conflict, or that the U.S. president invariably is? Or both?

One year ago, I stood at this podium and called for an independent Palestine. I believed then—and I believe now—that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said is that genuine peace can only be realized between Israelis and Palestinians themselves. One year later, despite extensive efforts by America and others, the parties have not bridged their differences. Faced with this stalemate, I put forward a new basis for negotiations in May. That basis is clear, and well known to all of us here.2 Israelis must know that any agreement provides assurances for their security. Palestinians deserve to know the territorial basis of their state.

2 The 1967 borders that dare not speak their name.

I know that many are frustrated by the lack of progress. So am I. But the question isn’t the goal we seek—the question is how to reach it. And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades.3 Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.—if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians—not us—who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem.4

3 Read my lips: no Palestinian resolution.
4 Note that he is separating those two parallel issues into two distinct questions: borders and security; Jerusalem and refugees. Note also that he is not calling for, say, an undivided Jerusalem, as some no doubt would like him to.

Peace depends upon compromise among peoples who must live together long after our speeches are over, and our votes have been counted. That is the lesson of Northern Ireland, where ancient antagonists bridged their differences.5 That is the lesson of Sudan, where a negotiated settlement led to an independent state. And that is the path to a Palestinian state.

5 George Mitchell was appointed the administration’s first Mideast envoy for his work in Northern Ireland. It didn’t go nearly as well this time around.

We seek a future where Palestinians live in a sovereign state of their own, with no limit to what they can achieve.6 There is no question that the Palestinians have seen that vision delayed for too long. And it is precisely because we believe so strongly in the aspirations of the Palestinian people that America has invested so much time and effort in the building of a Palestinian state, and the negotiations that can achieve one.

6 Unless you count not having an army as a limitation. Just saying!

America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable, and our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day.7 Let’s be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile, persecution, and the fresh memory of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they were.8

7 Boilerplate.
8 More than boilerplate! This is the part where as a Jew (or as an Israeli) you feel that maybe Obama does understand you. He will need to continue to communicate on this more gut level if he has any hopes of beating back the narrative that Jews and Israelis are abandoning him.

These facts cannot be denied. The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition.9 It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine.

9 As a Jewish state? The U.S. tends to think so; other members of the so-called Quartet don’t, and the Palestinian Authority refuses to.

That truth—that each side has legitimate aspirations—is what makes peace so hard. And the deadlock will only be broken when each side learns to stand in each other’s shoes. That’s what we should be encouraging. This body—founded, as it was, out of the ashes of war and genocide; dedicated, as it is, to the dignity of every person10—must recognize the reality that is lived by both the Palestinians and the Israelis. The measure of our actions must always be whether they advance the right of Israeli and Palestinian children to live in peace and security, with dignity and opportunity. We will only succeed in that effort if we can encourage the parties to sit down together, to listen to each other, and to understand each other’s hopes and fears. That is the project to which America is committed. And that is what the United Nations should be focused on in the weeks and months11 to come.

10 False! See Samuel Moyn’s article in Tablet Magazine today!
11 “Weeks and months.” Because if you thought this was going to be tidied up this week with either a resolution’s passage or veto, you’ve got another thing coming.

Remarks of President Barack Obama [NYT]
Related: Face the Nations [Tablet Magazine]
The Acrobat [Tablet Magazine]

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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