Week In News: Obama's Middle East Junket

President Obama returns Saturday from a trip to the Middle East, which included a long-awaited stop in Jerusalem. Weekends on All Things Considered guest host Don Gonyea speaks with James Fallows, national correspondent with The Atlantic, about the speech Obama gave to students there.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.

Coming up, robots do some stuff. How's that for a tease? And one of the more unlikely musical pairings you've ever heard. But first, the president makes what some have called a long-overdue trip to Israel. The speech there he dismissed those who say the country has no right to exist, but also asked his audience to empathize with the Palestinians.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own.

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: President Obama from Thursday's speech before a university crowd in Jerusalem. James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us, as he does most Saturdays. Jim, hello.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Don.

GONYEA: So this was Barack Obama's first trip to Israel as president. He visited back in the summer of '08 when he was still a candidate. For this trip, the White House kept expectations low - no real surprise there - but still an important moment?

FALLOWS: It was. And I think the expectations point is an important one. Even an hour or two before the speech, people were saying, oh, what could President Obama possibly say? After the speech, they were not saying that. And I think this fits into a long pattern of President Obama's performance - both as president and when he was a candidate too - of finding ways to get a certain kind of speech that may or may not ever solve the world's big problems but has the effect of changing the calculation, I think the same logic he's used in some previous speeches we saw in this one in Israel this week.

GONYEA: Give me an example of previous speeches where we've kind of felt that same kind of approach.

FALLOWS: Well, of course, the reason Barack Obama is known to anybody right now was his speech in the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston. He gave the argument, although not the exact lines, not a red America or a blue America, but a United States of America. And that was, I think, followed by the other big speech that really saved his campaign in early 2008 when the Reverend Jeremiah Wright was causing such controversy - was a speech about race in America where he talked about the full complexities of this issue.

He, as a person with a white mother and an African black father, said that he understood the different parts of the American divide, and asked people in the audience to think about how America could move past this great challenge of its future. And without going into all the details right now, I think that same architecture of trying to urge people to be empathetic with the other side and then act in the role as individuals and citizens and family members rather than just as supporters of politicians has been the theme in almost every major speech he's given.

GONYEA: And the setting for these speeches is also important, right? I mean, this one was at a university, lots of young people in the crowd. It was almost like he was saying, OK, I've talked to your country's leaders. Now I want to talk to you.

FALLOWS: Indeed. And I think that in retrospect, it's obvious - although people weren't saying this even a day or two before - that by talking to young people directly in that crowd, young Israelis, and by implication and broadcast, young people around the world and in the region, he was saying this isn't going to happen unless you take up the responsibility. You Israelis will be secure only if you find lasting peace, not just strength. You and the rest of the region need to find a way to recognize and accept Israel's long-term presence.

The most honest sounding line in that speech, and maybe the one that will have some resonance, was when he said, speaking as a politician, let me tell you this. Politicians will never take risks unless the people they're representing, you know, urge and force them to do so. And so I think that was obviously a speaking to the next generation of people in the region about their current leaders.

GONYEA: James Fallows is national correspondent with The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks much.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Don.

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