Something odd happened during Wednesday's press conference between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. When asked to address the Palestinian issue, the U.S. president on three occasions said that he would have more to say when he spoke directly to the Israeli people. The apparent takeaway is that for Obama, spending (wasting?) too much time trying to make progress with the Israeli prime minister on the Palestinian question is an exercise in futility -- a recognition that the politics would have to change first and that the Israeli public would be key to any political shift.
When Obama finally did get around to addressing that Israeli public in Thursday's speech in Jerusalem, the president made the point unequivocally: "Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see." Some might say Obama was following his own domestic playbook, as he has on issues from taxes to budget cuts to gun control. It's as if he sees Bibi as an obstacle to change on par with the House Republicans or the Tea Party.
Obama made his appeal to the Israeli public in an interesting way. He hit all the buttons in endorsing Israel's own narrative -- as one would expect from a visit that has resembled a schmooze-a-thon -- but he added a surprising twist. Obama essentially offered Israelis a blank check while attaching a health warning: "Use with Caution."
If misused, like a kid inheriting a fortune, such blank checks can have devastating self-destructive consequences. Obama's basic message -- Israel has America's unconditional support in perpetuity -- could be interpreted as having told Israelis that even as you abandon recognizable democracy in favour of apartheid, the United States will still have your back. "Israel is the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world," he noted.
Having handed over the blank check, he added the advisory note to user: If used badly, all that support would still not be enough to save Israel from the inevitable fallout from its current path.
First, over time you will have less security, as the other side is catching up technologically.
Second, you will not realize your full economic potential (Obama made a smart pivot from his visit highlighting Israel's technology hot-houses to telling Israelis they were nonetheless underachieving because absent peace and security they could not become a true regional hub and global magnet).
Third, that while the United States will support Israel no matter what, the rest of the world will not, and you will become isolated.
Finally, you will ultimately feel bad about yourselves because you will not be a democracy. You will not live up to your own traditions, your own standards, and your own humanity (a demographic and moral argument). In this respect, Obama's powerful message that peace is also about justice and his humanizing of the Palestinians, including his off-the-cuff anecdote about meeting young people in Ramallah, really tried to drive home this point.