Many people have tried to determine the true motive behind President Obama’s recent trip to Israel, his first as President. Was he there to patch up his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a relationship that has suffered from continual friction? Did he go simply to shore up his standing and buttress his credibility with pro-Israel factions in the United States, or perhaps to reassure the Israeli defense establishment that the United States is committed to countering Iran’s aggression? All of these possibilities have been raised, yet they all miss the real point of Obama’s trip. He wasn’t there to meet with Netanyahu or schmooze with the Israeli defense establishment. Obama went to Israel to speak directly to the Israeli public and to remind them that they don’t always have to be afraid.

That Israel’s outlook is colored by fear might strike some as surprising. Some people shrug off the great danger Israel faces and utter a few catchall phrases that have come to mean, “it will all be okay.” However, beneath Israel’s cool confidence lies a society that has come to expect, and fear, the worst. The trauma of the Holocaust still looms large over Israeli society and influences both the actions and rhetoric of the Israeli government. No matter what they do or which way they turn, Israelis feel that they face war and terror. The fear of violence has eroded their trust in both the Palestinian factions with whom they know they must make peace and their faith in the future.

Some people in Israel simply do not believe that the future will bring anything except more pain and bloodshed, and so they feel that there is no point in even making an effort. This fear is most pronounced in young people who have no memory of a more hopeful time. When I was in Israel and asked young Israelis about the peace process, I was often surprised by their answers. They were innately inclined toward peace and a two-state solution. They understood that it was necessary and just for both them and the Palestinians. However, they simply didn’t believe that it was possible, and they felt that any risks that Israel might take for peace would inevitably bring more violence and death. This mentality has resulted in a stalemate in the movement toward peace.

Prime Minister Netanyahu encourages this fear because this fear legitimizes him and makes his job easier. If Israelis are fearful, no one will ask why Netanyahu does nothing to advance peace. If Israelis lose their trust in the Palestinian leadership and people, it is easier for Netanyahu to sell the idea that Palestine does not want to come to an agreement. Netanyahu attempts to inspire fear in his people because it saves him the trouble of trying to convince Israelis that a perpetual existence between occupation and war is the best of all possible worlds.

This is the atmosphere that Obama confronted, one in which Israel has convinced itself that it cannot expect improvements to its current situation, and its leaders work day and night to nourish the fear that feeds this perspective. Obama grasped intuitively what so many people have missed. He realized that attempting to convince the Israeli government that peace is feasible is a fool’s errand, and that it was better to speak directly to the people, reassuring them that a better future really is possible. It helps that Obama, the man who rose on a platform of hope, is uniquely suited to make the case that hope is a better avenue then fear.

The keystone event of Obama’s trip, his speech to the Israeli public, was dedicated to the idea that hope should triumph over fear. Normally, visiting American presidents address the Israeli Knesset, the country’s legislative body, as well as a host of political and societal dignitaries. Obama chose to make his case directly to the younger generation of Israelis, the people who will determine exactly what kind of place Israel will become.

Obama’s speech was a quiet yet powerful rebuke of the culture of fear that Netanyahu has encouraged. In place of Holocaust rhetoric and reminders about the most painful episodes in Israeli history, Obama instead appealed to Israel’s best aspirations. He reminded them that the existence that they now lead is not set in stone, that a better future, despite what Netanyahu might say, is within their grasp if they would only reach for it. He offered the ideological alternative that so many recent Israeli politicians have tried and failed to sell to the Israeli people. For the sake of everyone who lives between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, let’s hope that Obama made a lasting impression.

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