- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
In his forceful speech before a youthful, applause-happy crowd in Jerusalem on Thursday, President Obama directed his remarks on the moribund peace process at young Israelis. “You have the opportunity to be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future,” he declared, in calling for an “independent and viable Palestine” alongside a “Jewish and democratic state.” Obama continued:
I know this is possible. Look to the bridges being built in business and civil society by some of you here today. Look at the young people who’ve not yet learned a reason to mistrust, or those young people who’ve learned to overcome a legacy of mistrust that they inherited from their parents, because they simply recognize that we hold more hopes in common than fears that drive us apart. Your voices must be louder than those who would drown out hope. Your hopes must light the way forward.
But here’s the catch: Many surveys show that young Israelis are actually more cynical and conservative about the peace process — and particularly Obama’s preferred two-state solution — than their elders. Ahead of the president’s visit this week, for example, the Israel Democracy Institute released a poll showing that a staggering 71 percent of Israeli Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 do not believe in Obama’s ability to achieve a breakthrough in peace talks — a percentage that steadily decreased as the respondents got older.
A Smith Research/Jerusalem Post poll in December found that only 42 percent of Israeli Jews aged 18 to 29 supported a two-state solution, compared with 63 percent of those aged 30 to 49 and 69 percent of those aged 50 and over. In analyzing another survey around the same time, the Israeli organization Blue White Future highlighted the “more right-leading tendencies amongst younger voters” — who, for example, were much more likely than older generations to support Israel annexing the West Bank (a position championed by rising star Naftali Bennett in Israel’s recent elections) without offering its Arab residents civil rights. It’s a trend that has been taking shape for several years now.
What explains the younger generation’s skepticism? The Los Angeles Times provided some helpful background earlier this week:
Reared on suicide bombings, failed peace initiatives and segregation from Palestinians, Israel’s younger generation is generally more conservative, more religious, less tolerant and less supportive of a two-state plan than their parents or grandparents.
That stands in marked contrast to the United States, where young people tend to be relatively liberal and where Obama enjoys his strongest support among those younger than 30.
“In comparison to their American counterparts, they are, by and large, older by several years – some would say, several lifetimes,” Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston wrote on Thursday, in reference to Israel’s “world-weary,” post-Oslo, post-Rabin generation. “They enter college after years in the military, often followed by the escape-valve rehab of a marathon trek to remote continents.”
Still, Burston argued that Obama’s address this week — one that “radically redefined centrism in Israel” — could change minds. “This was the speech that these young Israelis not only needed but wanted to hear,” he maintained.
To his credit, Obama made a glancing reference to young Israelis’ disillusionment on Thursday, noting that he understood “why too many Israelis — maybe an increasing number, maybe a lot of young people here today — are skeptical that [peace] can be achieved.” But he insisted that “as we face the twilight of Israel’s founding generation, you — the young people of Israel — must now claim its future.”
The question is: Did the president make any progress this week in persuading young Israelis to buy into the future he envisions?