From the Road: Israel and the Palestinian territories

January 14, 2006

Barack Obama at the end of his Middle East trip via Cell Phone from Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv

NOTE: The transcript abruptly ends – there is no goodbye – because Senator Obama’s cell phone connection dropped —

Hello, this is Barack Obama and it's the 14th of January. I'm sitting in an airport in Tel Aviv finishing up on a 9-day trip to the Middle East. Those of you who listened to the last Podcast know that I spent several days in Baghdad as well as Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan. For the last 5 days I've traveled throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories. My impressions - and for those of you who have been to the Middle East I think you'll recognize - that it's an extraordinarily complex place.

We had the opportunity on the first day to meet with a variety of members of Israel security forces and get briefings from them about the border situation and their concerns surrounding Iran as well as the prospects of elections both on the Palestinian side and the Israeli side.

This was a difficult time for the Israeli people - Prime Minister Sharon had just suffered a massive stroke and there was a lot of tumult in terms of political positioning. Fortunately at least on the Israeli side there seems to be a growing consensus represented by the Kadima party, that a centrist position that seeks to disengage from certain areas that are currently controlled by Israel while maintaining vigilance against terrorist attacks is the right approach.

I also had the opportunity then to fly from Tel Aviv all the way up north on a Blackhawk helicopter and see the borders of Israel and the separation barrier that has been erected. The separation barrier is a major bone of contention between Palestinians and Israelis at this point. In most portions it's a high fence that appears temporary and could be moved if the peace process and negotiations go forward. In some places it is a wall - a high barrier that can't be breeched and certainly looks permanent.

One of the points that I think all Israelis want to emphasize is how small and potentially vulnerable from the ground Israel is. And it's true that at certain points it's only about 20-30 minutes wide. When you are flying over it is almost impossible to distinguish between - at least for a layman - between Palestinian villages and Israeli villages. And we had the opportunity to fly up over the Sea of Galilee, towards the Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian borders and visit with a gentleman whose house had been hit by a Katyusha missile just recently, launched by Hezbollah (Hezbollah, the militant Islamic organization that is active in Syria and Lebanon and occasionally engages in skirmishes across the border and obviously makes the population there feel extraordinarily vulnerable.) But, having said that, one of the things you do get a strong sense of is that Israel at this point possesses such superior military forces, that they don't really have enormous vulnerability in a conventional sense. There is no risk of invasion by its neighbors and Israel's economy and infrastructure seem extraordinarily robust and vibrant.

The following day I went into Ramallah and to the West Bank and had an opportunity to talk to Palestinian students, as well as Palestinian businessmen and also had a meeting with Abu Mazen, the President and successor to Yasser Arafat. As you travel through the West Bank, you get a sense of the differences between life for Palestinians and Israelis in this region. Palestinians have to suffer through the checkpoint system, the barriers, the fenced-in wall that exists just to get to their jobs, often times to travel from north and south even within the west bank. It's created enormous hardship for them - there is high unemployment and the economy is not doing as well as it should.

Unfortunately the Palestinians, through Yasser Arafat, suffered from leadership that seemed to be more interested in the rhetoric of Israel's destruction and less interested in actually constructively creating a peaceful solution to the problem and focusing on delivery of services to the Palestinian people. And so I had a wonderful discussion with Palestinian students as well as discussions with Palestinian businessmen and Abu Mazen, about the importance of the Palestinian people focusing on building up infrastructure, building up capacity, building up an honest, non-corrupt government, consolidating arms that are currently dispersed among a variety of militias under a single command structure of the Palestinian authority, and entering into constructive negotiations on a non-violent basis to arrive at a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

Whether that's going to be able to happen or not is not yet clear. There are elections on January 26th and Abu Mazen - his party, Fatah party - is being challenged very effectively by Hammas, which has historically been a terrorist organization. This is their first venture into politics and they've proved to be much more adept at politics and organization than the ruling Fatah movement, which has been marked for its reputation of corruption.

The next day, and the final full day in Israel, we spent finally doing a little bit of sight-seeing and traveling through the old city of Jerusalem. Those of you who have been here know the incredible magic of the city. As the sun rises over 2,000-year old walls - walls built by David, Soloman, the Turkish Empire, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the site of Calvary and Jesus' tomb is located. Just a stone's throw away, the Western Wall; across from there you have the magnificent Dome of the Rock, gilded in gold. It gives you a sense of just how much history is here and it reminds us that you have to be humble when you think about the Middle East and what's possible here.

There are a lot of memories, there's a lot of history, there are a lot of grudges and bitterness and in some ways it reminds us of how lucky we are as Americans that ironically we don't have this kind of history. It's easier for us to forget and move on. It's much harder for people here who are seeing everyday the roots of their own people and the conflicts that go back generation after generation.

On the other hand, as I was leaving Jerusalem on that final day and looking over the Old City I was reminded of how similar in many ways Palestinians and Jews, Muslims, Christians - how similar all these people were; and that despite differences in language and religion and despite the bitter history of the region it must be possible on some level to have each group recognize the humanity of the other.