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Bessent: In Israel, Barack Obama offers visions of peace and war

President Barack Obama speaks to Israeli students at

President Barack Obama speaks to Israeli students at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, Israel. (Mar. 21, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s speech before a young Israeli audience in Jerusalem Thursday was in part a throwback to his “yes we can” days as a candidate. It worked then. Maybe it will again.

His call for a two-state solution with Palestinians had the feel of a political rally. And the response was enthusiastic.

His words won't change the hard political realities that have repeatedly thwarted the long pursuit of peace. But while flexing the United States' muscle on other subjects such as Iran, he made a powerful case for continuing the quest for peace.

“Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine,” Obama said.

And he emphasized that the young people of Israel have the power to shape that future.

“For the moment, put aside the plans and the process. I ask you instead to think about what can be done to build trust between people. That’s where peace begins, not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people. You must create the change that you want to see.”

It was a smart attempt to raise his stock with the Israeli people, in hopes that would strengthen his hand when dealing with their government. And his exhortation for Israelis to put themselves in the shoes of Palestinians who, he said, also deserve a state of their own, probably raised his stock on the Palestinian side of the historic divide.

But on another hot topic — Iran’s nuclear ambitions which Israel views as an existential threat — his message was rooted firmly in realpolitik.

He said a nuclear Iran would raise the risk of nuclear terrorism, spark an arms race in the volatile region and pose a danger for the entire world, including the United States. Then he said what, it appeared many in the hall were waiting to hear, based on their cheers and applause.

“Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained. America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.”

Obama has said as much before. But one day earlier he and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had agreed that Iran is about one year away from having that capability — and that raised the troubling spectre of yet another war.

Ten years ago a different administration sold an uncritical press and angry public on the need for a different war by stoking fears of a dangerous nation led by an irresponsible madman that either had, or soon would have, weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons existed, of course, but that war went on for a decade.

On Sunday Newsday’s editorial page will look at the lessons in that for this nation.

Of course there are significant differences between Iraq and Iran and the situations then and now. But the run-up to war a decade ago should make us more clear-eyed this time around.