President Obama’s speech last week to university students in Jerusalem has received a lot of attention and a fair bit of praise (see herehere and here).


Leaving the politics aside – never easy on this topic – we saw it as a noteworthy address for the approach the President and his speechwriters took.


Coming into this speech it was clear many Israelis didn’t trust the President.  Here’s a rundown of the numbers.  Obama’s team knew this.  They also knew that in order to have anything the President said matter to the Israeli public they’d have to work to chip away at some of that mistrust.


We know from our work that one of the most effective ways of doing this is establishing common ground, which is exactly what this speech tried to do.


Here’s what it looked like.


‘I understand your circumstances’

A lot of the knock on Obama vis-à-vis Israel was that he was naïve about the circumstances – and threats – Israelis face.  His speech had to change that view.  He used the circumstances of individual Israelis to try to make clear that he does “get it.”


When I consider Israel’s security, I think about children like Osher Twito, who I met in Sderot – children, the same age as my own daughters, who went to bed at night fearful that a rocket would land in their bedroom simply because of who they are and where they live… I think about five Israelis who boarded a bus in Bulgaria, who were blown up because of where they came from.


‘We’re not so different’

Obama spent a lot of his speech building to a point of personal, emotional empathy. From his own family’s Seder dinners, to his personal history, he showed that he was culturally and emotionally capable of seeing the world through the Israeli people’s eyes:


For me personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, it spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home.


‘There’s a narrative that binds us’

By framing the U.S./Israeli relationship in the context of a broader, universal narrative of freedom in a homeland, he also strengthened the idea of a bond, a familial connection, a shared destiny between the two nations:


It is a story about finding freedom in your own land. For the Jewish people, this story is central to who you have become. But it is also a story that holds within it the universal human experience…In the United States – a nation made up of people who crossed oceans to start anew – we are naturally drawn to the idea of finding freedom in our land.


‘These bonds are unbreakable’

Not only did Obama express empathy and connection, he hardened the strength of these sentiments with an iron-clad promise of solidarity and support:


Today, I want to tell you – particularly the young people – that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd [you are not alone].


It was only after establishing his understanding of the Israeli people, and the strength of the bond the two nations share, that he was able to attempt to deliver hard truths on the change required to build peace in the region.


More importantly, leading by example, he was credibly able to ask for understanding from his audience:


But the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes.


Full Video and Transcript of Obama’s speech can be found here


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