Youth Perspectives On US-Middle East Policy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Congress today. Since President Obama's policy speech on the Middle East, controversy has brewed over America's relationship with Israel and the U.S. stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Host Michel Martin speaks with Israeli Danny Shaket and Palestinian Ahmad Omeir, two youth leaders working with One Voice, a grassroots organization aiming to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a conversation about the growing pains in a community being redefined by immigration. We'll hear about the PBS documentary "Welcome To Shelbyville." That's just ahead.

But first, we turn to another longstanding conflict over whether or how to live together, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the past few days, official Washington has been abuzz with controversy over America's relationship with Israel and the U.S. position on the longstanding conflict in the Middle East.

Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is speaking to Congress after a tense meeting with President Obama last week. Netanyahu has flatly rejected President Obama's proposal that a two-state solution be based on the 1967 borders. Here's a clip from the speech Netanyahu delivered Monday to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, or the American Israeli Political Action Committee, in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Israel): I'll describe what a peace between a Palestinian state and the Jewish state could look like. But I want to assure you of one thing, it must leave Israel with security, and therefore Israel cannot return to the indefensible 1967 line.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS)

MARTIN: Prime Minister Netanyahu was not the only one unhappy with the president's vision for U.S.-Middle East policy. President Obama's speech drew criticism from the Palestinian Authority and throughout the Arab world for what some viewed as lukewarm support for the anti-government uprisings across the Arab and Muslim world.

We wanted to get perspectives on the ground, so we've called on two young community organizers - one Israeli, one Palestinian - whom we've spoken with before to get their perspectives of people who are actually living the conflict in the region and trying to plan futures for themselves.

We're joined once again by Danny Shaket. He's a student at Tel Aviv University. He's with us from his office in Jerusalem. Also with us is Ahmad Omeir, he heads the group Young Entrepreneurs of Palestine. He's with us from Ramallah, West Bank via Skype. Both Danny and Ahmad are both with One Voice. That's a grassroots organization made up of Israeli and Palestinian moderates working to resolve the conflict. It's an international organization. And welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us once again.

DANNY SHAKET: Thank you for having us again.

MARTIN: All right. So, Ahmed, I'll start with you. It just seems like there's a lot of dissatisfaction with President Obama's outline for U.S. Middle East policy that he outlined last week in his big speech. And so, I'll just start with you and just ask what was your reaction to the speech and what you've heard in the days ahead and also the reaction where you are?

AHMED OMEIR: Well, basically, ma'am, what I'm gonna say is that since the beginning of the Obama administration people were a little bit, like, more hopeful since President Obama actually addressed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from the very first day of his administration.

Yet, people started to lose this kind of hope in the Obama administration after the Cairo speech when President Obama actually asked the Israeli government to stop building settlements and expanding. All that was basically in - countered by the other speech that he did on the 22nd in front of AIPAC, which was more or less from what I hear from all of my colleagues and the people that talked about this speech, that was more biased towards the Israeli government and the support of the strategic ally of the United States in the Middle East.

MARTIN: So, you feel like it's kind of a wash?

OMEIR: I wouldn't say it's kind of a wash, but I would say that right now I am personally confused regarding what actually is President Obama thinking about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and what is the stance of the United States. You know, because basically like with the first speech, I thought that okay, now we're going, for the first time at least, and confirming the international legitimacy and talking about the borders of 1967 as a basis of resolving the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Yeah, so with the second speech talking about, like, different stuff from the right of the Israeli government to defend itself all the time against all of the attacks and all of these things, which basically put the Palestinians under no protection at any point, you know?

MARTIN: OK. I'll just play a short clip of President Obama's speech at AIPAC. Then, Danny, I'll get perspective from you. I'll just play a short clip from his speech. As I said, we can't play the whole thing. But we'll link to it on our website so that people can hear it. Also, Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech, too, so people can read or hear both of them for themselves. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

President BARACK OBAMA: If there is a controversy then, it's not based in substance. What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately. I've done so because we can't afford to wait another decade or another two decades or another three decades to achieve peace.

MARTIN: And there, of course, he's defending his position to base a peace agreement on the, quote, 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. Danny, your perspective.

SHAKET: I think that the whole mess and shenanigan that's been going on since last Thursday is really about nuances. The 1967 borders and the land swap which were mentioned, Obama said on Thursday that he said based on the 1967 borders, are not really different than what we know from before. So, it feels that someone just used and manipulated the media and the public and used it in order to run the president and show Netanyahu's rejection to any concessions or some kind of a move towards negotiations, because all we hear from Netanyahu is legit fear of Israelis from indefensible borders basically.

MARTIN: I understand what you're saying. You think that a lot of the official reaction that you're hearing and even perhaps some of the unofficial reaction you're hearing is kind of geared more toward domestic politics in Israel than perhaps what's really going on with the negotiations. But I did want to ask just from the people you talked to and your peer group. How are they reacting to the president's speech?

SHAKET: From what I get is mostly from the media and my friends around me, which from what I hear the 1967 borders is something that people already known for quite a while, because where would you put a Palestinian state?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're checking with two youth leaders that we've talked to from time to time to get their take on the events in the Middle East. They are Danny Shaket and Ahmad Omeir. They're both youth leaders with the moderate group, One Voice.

Ahmed, would you talk a little bit more about what you said earlier of feeling confused about where the president really stands. Do you feel confused about where he stands, specifically on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or more broadly about whether you feel he supports kind of the aspirations of people within the Arab and Muslim world for, you know, more freedom and within their own context? Tell me a little bit more, if you would?

OMEIR: I would say that basically what confuses me more is the stance of President Obama on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in specific, you know? And they're like, basically the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is complicated and confusing by itself, you know? So, I would expect at least from the president of the United States to have, like, a more clear stance about this situation.

From one side, I feel that President Obama with his speech was, like, very supportive of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict according to the borders of 1967 and the two-state solution. And from other sides, I hope that he's not as supportive as - or at least we expect him to be.

MARTIN: Yeah, I gave you the first word, so I'm going to give Danny the last word. So before I let you go, Ahmed, can I ask you the same question we've been asking all along? Do you feel, I'm checking your optimism meter, do you feel that there will be a lasting peace in your lifetime? Do you still hold out hope for that?

OMEIR: I wouldn't say that I am optimistic. But at the same time, I'm not saying that I am pessimistic. I would say that I am a very determined person, just like everybody in the movement that we have. And I'm not talking only about the Palestinians in the movement, but also my Israeli colleagues. And I've seen their determination. I've seen how much they are willing to go to try to actually answer the aspirations of both sides. And in this, basically, in this conflict, it's not an easy job.

It's a difficult thing that we do on a daily basis, you know. Just like I told you, for example, take me as an example. I have two jobs. I work 16 hours a day. And I'm still willing to, like, find a space of time, so I can, like, do all I can to end this conflict. And that's what we are right now. We are determined. We see our goal and we're working towards it.

MARTIN: Danny, final thought from you?

SHAKET: Yeah. The thing is, maybe I want just to add of the things that we've spoken before.

MARTIN: Sure.

SHAKET: The thing that was felt here in Israel was that someone is forcing us into a certain term into the negotiation. And 1967 for the Israelis is 1967 is the Six-Day War that was imposed on us basically, that we started because we were under siege. And we don't feel that it is defensible. But it's a basis for a future Palestinian state. We cannot ignore it. But the Israelis felt that it was forcing us, because Obama initiated and went first to speak instead of Netanyahu.

And as a leader of the Israeli people and of the state of Israel, he needs to initiate. He cannot be dragged. And what we saw on Thursday and on Monday when he spoke was - on Thursday when Obama spoke and yesterday in his speech - I think we saw panic. We saw panic when somebody dragged the rug beneath his feet and he was caught unaware or unprepared and nothing that he put on the table.

This is why we, in One Voice Israel, are trying to call for our politicians, for our leaders to show and present a peace initiative, an agreement with the Palestinians. What are we willing to do and give in order to end the conflict?

MARTIN: Hmm.

SHAKET: Because in this way, we will just be dragging to more and more conflict.

MARTIN: Danny Shaket is an economics student at Tel Aviv University. He was kind enough to join us from his office in Jerusalem. Ahmed Omeir is the executive director of the group Young Entrepreneurs of Palestine. He was with us from Ramallah, West Bank via Skype. And as we told you before, both Danny and Ahmed are youth leaders with One Voice. That's a grassroots organization made up of Israeli and Palestinian moderates who are working for peace. Danny and Ahmed, thank you so much for joining us once again. We hope we'll talk soon.

OMEIR: Thank you for having us.

SHAKET: Thank you, Michel.

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