Two high profile speeches were delivered in Israel and Turkey yesterday, each inspiring and giving cause for hope, but only one of them is likely to be transformed from rhetoric into tangible gains. The two speeches of course were the ones given by President Obama in Jerusalem and by PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan (via Pervin Buldan and Sırrı Süreyya Önder) in Diyarbakır. Let’s begin with Obama, who gave what was in many ways (although not all) the perfect speech when it comes to Israel. To begin with, he made it crystal clear that the Jewish connection to Israel and the path to establishing a state did not begin with the Holocaust, which was the crucial error he made in his 2009 speech in Cairo, and he also rooted the relationship between Israel and the U.S. in both interests and values, which will make many Israelis happy. He left no doubt that he understands the security problems faced by Israelis every day, from Hamas rockets to Hizballah terrorism targeting Israelis around the world to the Iranian nuclear program, and in the most memorable line of the speech said, “Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist — they might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel’s not going anywhere.”
At the same time, however, he spoke forcefully about the need to make peace and establish a Palestinian state while acknowledging that doing so is a difficult thing for Israelis given past rejection of peace proposals by Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas and the violent aftermath of Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza. Obama approached this topic in a smart way by linking peace to security and economic success, but did not ignore the basic fact that peace is also just and that some empathy for Palestinians is necessary. Of course the violence and terrorism that all too often has come from the Palestinian side is absolutely unjustifiable, but Israel has to overcome that and not tar all Palestinians with the same broad brush. Is there some naivete inherent in a speech that in some way links the U.S. civil rights movement, which was a completely non-violent grassroots movement for equality, to the Palestinian national struggle, which has never been a non-violent one in any widespread or meaningful way? Absolutely. But the Ben Gurion quote that Obama trotted out on believing in miracles in order to be a realist applies here, and if there is a winning combination of reassurance and prodding that Israelis need to hear, I think Obama hit on it. As Rob Danin points out, Israelis and Palestinians yearn for peace irrespective of everything that has taken place between the two sides and the cynicism that many feel, and Obama’s speech played on those emotions.
Of no less consequence was Öcalan’s Nevruz message, which stands in stark contrast to last year’s Nevruz marked by tear gas, water cannons, and civilian deaths. This year, over a million people gathered in the streets of Diyarbakır to hear Öcalan proclaim a PKK ceasefire, call for a move toward finding a political solution rather than a military one, echo the Turkish government’s language from the day before about fraternity, and link Turks and Kurds together as peoples united in one country. Öcalan dropped his call for an independent Kurdistan as well, which is in some ways even more remarkable than his call for a cessation of armed struggle, and his exhortation to let ideas rather than guns rule is similar to what Tayyip Erdoğan has been saying every time he talks about Kurdish issues. At heart, this speech appears to recognize that there is in fact no military solution to solving the impasse between Turkey and its Kurdish citizens and that the only way forward is through politics. While Obama’s speech got more attention in the U.S. and around the world yesterday, it is actually Öcalan’s speech that is the more consequential and revolutionary one, and I’d go so far to say that it is one of the most important political developments in Turkey during the entirety of the AKP’s time in government. Öcalan does not speak for all Kurds or even all elements of the PKK, so it remains to be seen whether this speech will actually significantly alter the PKK’s behavior, but given the enormous shift in language and the Nevruz setting, I am cautiously optimistic that it will and that Öcalan did not write this speech without some assurances that it would translate into action. I am also certain that this speech only came about following a private agreement between Öcalan and the government, and that BDP support for Erdoğan’s constitutional initiatives is now assured. If yesterday marks the end of PKK terrorism, it also marks the beginning of the Erdoğan presidency.
In contrast, I fear that Obama’s speech is going to end up being a rhetorical highlight but little more. As I have detailed before, the makeup of the new Israeli government makes a serious diplomatic initiative impossible, and Bibi Netanyahu is simply not going to risk having his government fall. Furthermore, despite the lofty words, Obama is not going to spend too much time and effort pushing an Israeli government that is unwilling to be pushed. It is no accident that Obama did not come to Israel with a peace plan of his own, since that was not the point of the trip and will not be the point of his second term. The reality of the situation is that Obama does not want to fight a losing battle, the current Israeli government is not going to move on implementing a two-state solution without some serious outside pressure, and the current Palestinian government is completely inept and unable to deliver on anything. So in sum, two great speeches to mark the first day of spring, but only one of them will ultimately be remembered as anything more than that.