Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama's Cairo Speech and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict: Good Intentions Plus Misunderstanding Equals Failure

By Barry Rubin

President Barack Obama’s discussion in his Cairo speech of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is so important that it took up about 25 percent of the text.

Obama sought to put the United States into a neutral rather than pro-Israel position. This is not so unusual as it might seem compared to the 35 years U.S. policy has been trying to be a credible mediator, a length of time many forget--including Obama himself—through numerous peace plans and negotiating structures.

The speech is beautifully constructed and carefully crafted. But what does it say, both intentionally and implicitly?

Obama began by stressing U.S.-Israel links, not downplaying or concealing this from his Muslim audience:

“America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”

He then makes two points: the reality of the Shoah (Holocaust) and opposition to wiping Israel off the map:

“Threatening Israel with destruction--or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews--is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”

Previous presidents have often said such but Obama is wrapping this into  his attempt to show Muslims that he is on their side it might be deemed especially effective. But putting almost all emphasis on the Holocaust—which in Arab and Muslim views is a European crime whose bill they are unfairly paying—may be the wrong approach.

He also roots Jews desire for their own country mainly in persecution, to which the Arab/Muslim answer has been that this isn’t their responsibility or that Jews can live happily—as Obama wrongly hints they have done in the past—under Muslim rule.

While Obama tries hard, his approach may reverberate only for a small minority of politically powerless Western-oriented liberals who already understand it.

Turning to Palestinians, he uses an appealing image but one so wrong that it undermines Obama’s entire approach. The Palestinians, he says, have “suffered in pursuit of a homeland” for more than 60 years.

But if that were true the issue would have been solved 60 years ago (1948 through partition), 30 years ago (1979 and Anwar Sadat’s initiative) or 9 years ago (Camp David-2). What has brought Palestinian suffering is the priority on total victory and Israel’s destruction rather than merely getting a homeland. This is the reason why the conflict won’t be solved in the next week, month, or year.

Obama states, “The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.” But in real political terms that’s untrue. If it were true, the leadership would move quickly to improve their situation rather than continue the struggle seeking total victory. The Oslo agreement of 1993 and Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip were both based on this premise and both failed miserably for this very reason.

And so will Obama’s effort.

Pulling out of Gaza, for instance, Israel urged the Palestinian Authority to provide stability, improve living standards, and stop the war on Israel. Huge amounts of money were provided. And the result has been evident.

For Obama, Palestine is what Iraq was for George W. Bush. By rebuilding and reshaping its situation, providing its people with good lives and democracy, he expects to win Arab and Muslim gratitude. Obama’s supporters have ridiculed Bush for trying to remake other peoples, cultures, and countries. The same point applies to Obama.

He concludes, “The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.” True. But what else is new? Israelis’ aspirations—despite misunderstandings by others--can certainly be met by this outcome. The same is not true for Palestinian aspirations as they really exist, rather than as Westerners think they should be.

While Obama might have said it in a different way, his words echo those of the last five American presidents. In the way he argues, however, Obama reveals his weakness in dealing with these issues. First he says—and this sounds wonderful to Western ears:

“Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed,” citing the American civil rights’ movement as example. This sounds noble but it is silly because it ignores the social and ideological context.

Fatah believes it got control of the West Bank and leadership of the Palestinian people through violence and killing. Hamas in Gaza; Hizballah and Syria in Lebanon; and Iran’s Islamist regime as well as the Muslim Brotherhoods believe that “resistance” works.

From the standpoint of Palestinian leaders, violence and killing are not failures. Moreover, violence and killing are commensurate with the goal of the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian leadership, which is total victory. Their main alternative “peaceful” strategy is the demand—shared by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas—that pretty much all Palestinians who wish to do so must be allowed to live in Israel. A formula for more violence and killing.

Obama also says: “Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people.” This, of course, is what we’ve been hearing since 1993, when the responsibility for governing was supposed to transform Yasir Arafat from terrorist to statesman. Isn’t there some reason that this didn’t happen?

He continues: “Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have to recognize they have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel's right to exist.”

The mind reels. Hamas doesn’t just have support, it governs the Gaza Strip. It disagrees with Obama. Fulfilling Palestinian aspirations means for it creating an Islamist state from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean. Unifying the Palestinian people means for it seizing control of the West Bank also and putting all the territories under its rule.

And what will Obama do when nobody behaves the way he wants them to? In this respect, Israel is not his problem, though he doesn’t seem to understand that yet.

Consider the otherworldliness of what he says about Israel. Here’s an example: “The continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank.” Actually, the latter point is precisely the current Israeli government’s policy. As for Gaza, mitigating the alleged humanitarian crisis means strengthening a Hamas government. Ending the “crisis,” by opening the borders and infusing lots of money that will inevitably be used to strengthen Hamas’s rule threatens Israel’s security far more than the status quo.

One of Obama’s best lines was to say, “The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems.” But this is so basic to the needs of the existing regimes, why would the governments respond to Obama’s call to do this, any more than to Bush’s urging for democracy?

Here’s Obama’s main theme: “Privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.”

This argument—peace is rational so just do it!--has been the basic concept governing Western policy toward the issue at least since the late 1970s. Even before. In 1955, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles asked why the Arabs and Israelis didn’t settle their differences like “Christian gentlemen?” Obama is more cultural sensitive, but his ethnocentric approach is basically the same.

After decades we are no closer to implementing this idea, perhaps even further. Obama’s task is to come to understand why this is so. Here’s one hint: almost all Israelis publicly support a Palestinian state if it leads to a stable peace. Those Muslims ready for full peace with Israel are still a minority who are too afraid to speak other than “privately.” This imbalance explains why the conflict continues, who is responsible for it, and what must be done to change that situation.

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