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Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 11:07 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 11:07 | SYDNEY

Obama and the Israeli story

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4 October 2016 10:13

President Barack Obama made what is likely to be his final trip to the Middle East as president on Friday to deliver a eulogy for Shimon Peres. It was full of personal memories of his conversations with Peres, who for most of Obama's presidency was his protocol opposite in Israel and, perhaps more importantly, his closest intellectual opposite in Israel, given Obama's difficult relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This passage toward the end of his remarks stood out to me:

As Americans and Israelis, we often talk about the unbreakable bonds between our nations.  And, yes, these bonds encompass common interests – vital cooperation that makes both our nations more secure. But today we are reminded that the bonds which matter most run deeper.  Anchored in a Judeo-Christian tradition, we believe in the irreducible value of every human being.  Our nations were built on that idea. They were built in large part by stubborn idealists and striving immigrants, including those who had fled war and fled oppression. Both our nations have flaws that we have not always fixed, corners of our history which date back to our founding that we do not always squarely address. But because our founders planted not just flags in the eternal soil, but also planted the seeds of democracy, we have the ability to always pursue a better world. We have the capacity to do what is right.
 
As an American, as a Christian, a person partly of African descent, born in Hawaii – a place that could not be further than where Shimon spent his youth – I took great pleasure in my friendship with this older, wiser man. We shared a love of words and books and history. And perhaps, like most politicians, we shared too great a joy in hearing ourselves talk. But beyond that, I think our friendship was rooted in the fact that I could somehow see myself in his story, and maybe he could see himself in mine. Because for all of our differences, both of us had lived such unlikely lives. It was so surprising to see the two of us where we had started, talking together in the White House, meeting here in Israel. And I think both of us understood that we were here only because in some way we reflected the magnificent story of our nations.

I see themes here common to all Obama's best speeches: an ability to weave his own personal story into that of the life of the nation — and in this case, the personal story of Peres into the Israeli story; a confidence in the role of immigrants and their children in enriching our societies, accompanied by an offsetting humility with regard to his own role; and most of all a faith in our ability 'to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of our time'.

Given the recent course of American and Israeli politics, the peace process, and the US-Israel relationship, this was a boldly principled and optimistic speech to give at Peres' funeral. Obama may feel obliged to take a lower profile after 20 January if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, but I hope he continues to offer leadership like this in retirement. Perhaps out of office, more Americans – and others – will be willing to listen.
 
Photo: Getty Images

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