Words matter

President Obama is being rightly praised for his meaningful speech in Israel. He poignantly and powerfully made the case that a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is (as Daniel Levy summarized it) necessary, just, and possible. He had an awful lot of ground to make up with Israelis, and the attitudes he advanced in his speech went a considerable way toward repairing the damage wrought by his earlier attitudes and policies.

One of the most striking departures from past practice was the president's effort to assure Israelis that they have -- and will continue to have -- American support for their security and democracy. The administration seems belatedly to have come to the recognition that Israelis are more likely to make the brave choices required for a peace agreement if they are confident of our support. This is exactly the opposite of the position the administration has taken on Iraq and Afghanistan. In both those cases, the president's policies have been predicated on the belief that those societies and leaders would not make the hard choices required of them unless the United States threatened them with abandonment. Thus, the timelines for military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan have created self-fulfilling prophesies of governments working against our interests because they believe we are working against theirs.

It is theoretically possible that societies scarred by authoritarian repression and civil war would make the brave and monumental choices in those circumstances, but I have a difficult time dredging up examples of any that have. And the president clearly doesn't think that the established democracy of Israel would do so. Let us hope President Obama's acknowledgement of the need for supporting states making difficult compromises portends a change in policy more generally rather than being sui generis to Israel.

Another context in which words matter is what our enemies hear. The late, great Ernest May, a Harvard historian and a member of the 9/11 Commission, paralleled the Wehrmacht attack on France in 1940 to the al Qaeda attack on the United States. In both cases, the enemy used open-source knowledge of the society to identify and exploit known weaknesses. I could not help thinking of this watching the pathetic parade of civilian and military defense leaders proclaim all the destruction and incapacity incurred by a 2 percent cut in federal spending -- despite the fact that the United States will retain 45 percent of global defense spending. 

On this, the day he relinquishes command, it seems fitting to praise General James Mattis as the only military leader who used the opportunity of Congressional budget testimony to issue a growling threat to our enemies. Mattis emphasized that even with spending cuts, sequestration, and a continuing resolution, he had under his command the military power to destroy anyone who would challenge the United States, its interests, and allies. Let us hope our defense leaders start thinking about how their tales of woe sound in Pyongyang and Tehran.

There is some evidence that happy day may be approaching in the form of Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's volte-face in Seoul this week. Carter had previously and repeatedly testified that sequestration would be incredibly destructive to our military, making the defense strategy -- the pivot to Asia -- unexecutable. Sent to Seoul to reassure our South Korean allies, Carter now insisted that budget cuts would have no affect on neither our willingness nor our ability to carry out our defense strategy. Nor would budget restrictions diminish our ability to deter North Korea or fight alongside South Korea. "We'll ensure all of our resources will be available to our alliance," he said.

Despite having invented the 24-hour news cycle, the permanent political campaign, Madison Avenue advertising, Hollywood iconography, and been at the forefront of globalization, the United States still tends to have our domestic debates as though we are talking only to ourselves, as though we can segregate what we say domestically from what is heard internationally. We cannot. Words matter, and very often our enemies take our words more seriously than we do ourselves. It's high time our leaders start factoring that more carefully into their policy statements as well as their policy prescriptions.

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Shadow Government

Well done, Mr. President. Now for the hard work of making peace

President Obama is a nonpareil speaker. Yesterday he may have given the greatest speech of his career. Addressing an audience of young Israelis -- that country's future -- he made it clear that he understood the depth of Israeli emotion about its historical past and difficult present. At the same time, he implicitly conveyed the very important message that Israelis could, indeed should, trust him, that he does indeed "have their back.

Obama said the usual things about America's security relationship with Israel. He rightly took pride in the joint American-Israeli venture to develop the Iron Dome defense system that saved thousands of Israeli lives in the face of the rocket onslaught that Hamas launched from Gaza. He demanded that Hezbollah be treated as a terrorist organization, that Hamas accept Israel's right to exist, and that Assad relinquish his vicious grip on Syria. He again asserted that the United States would never tolerate a nuclear Iran, though he skirted the issue of whether Washington and Jerusalem share the same red lines that should prompt a military attack on that country.

Far more important, however, were the symbolic sentiments that Obama voiced in his speech and that marked this, his first trip to Israel as president. Prior to his speech he had visited the Shrine of the Book to underscore his recognition that Israel is not some by-product of the Holocaust, as so many anti-Semites (who would probably have applauded the Holocaust had they had the chance) continue to allege. Rather, he told his youthful audience, Israel is the Jewish homeland, as it has been for millenia. Referring to the Jewish holiday that begins Monday night, Obama said, "Passover ... is a story about finding freedom in your own land." 

Obama's visit to Theodore Herzl's grave, unprecedented for an American president because of its political connotations, also added credibility to what he would later say in his speech: "While Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its expression in the Zionist idea -- to be a free people in your homeland." Those italicized words were lifted virtually intact from Israel's national anthem, "Hatikvah," which means "the hope." 

Yet Obama did not hesitate to tackle the thorny question of peace with the Palestinians. He did so in terms that were both powerful and moving. "Put yourself in their shoes," he said, "look at the world through their eyes. 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 ... Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land." In other words, they too have a Hatikvah of their own.

Now comes the hard part. Obama's soaring speeches tend to fall flatly to earth when he attempts to implement them. He needs to exploit Bibi Netanyahu's political vulnerability to a cabinet that was not of his choosing and pressure the Israeli prime minister to negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith. And even if Obama made it clear to the Palestinian Authority's leaders that they should negotiate without preconditions, he must somehow get Netanyahu to put a stop to settlement construction outside that narrow band of territory that everyone concedes will become part of Israel in any peace agreement.

At the same time, Obama must move a reluctant and politically exhausted Abu Mazen to relinquish the demands that have broken past deals that were almost consummated by previous American presidents, in particular, the absolute right of return to pre-1967 Israel for all Palestinians claiming to have lived there. As a first step, perhaps Obama can persuade the two sides to accept an understanding along the following lines: Israel stops settlement construction outside very limited areas like the Eztion Bloc, and the Palestinians finally accept Israel for what it is, a Jewish State.

Maybe John Kerry, Obama's designated hitter for the peace process, can deliver an initial deal along these lines or perhaps some other set of parameters. But deliver he must. The president was awarded a Nobel Prize on the basis of his speeches. It will take something more than a beautiful address beautifully delivered to make any headway between two cynical, embittered, resentful peoples, neither of which can escape the tentacles of their respective histories. 

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)