There have been ample and immediate reactions to US President Barack Obama’s recent speech about the changes in the Middle East. After surfacing from the festivities of Shabbat and Lag B’Omer, I’d like to share my own thoughts.
I appreciate that as the leader of the free world, Obama sees America’s fortunes intertwined with those of people elsewhere in the world. America enjoys a comfortable distance from the countries in turmoil, but at least Obama has absorbed the lesson from 9/11 that even when you don’t got looking for trouble, sometimes trouble has a way of coming to find you. His talk of looking for ways to shore up the economies of the Middle Eastern countries after their changes in government and encourage the expansion of individual liberties (without the delusion of establishing American-style democracies where that is neither conceivable nor the popular will) is appropriate. Whether such investment of time and treasure will prove fruitful remains to be seen.
But Obama has certain blind spots that cannot be ignored. He is very willing to see the evil in Al Qaeda terror, but less willing to recognize that same hate, bloodlust, and will to destroy in the Palestinian Authority. When he said, “Bin Laden … was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate – an insistence that Muslims had to take up arms against the West, and that violence against men, women and children was the only path to change” and that Bin Laden “rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims in favor of violent extremism; his agenda focused on what he could destroy – not what he could build,” he could easily have substituted Mahmoud Abbas’s name for Bin Laden’s. Yes, Abbas makes a show of being a “peace partner,” but that has to be seen in context. The PLO has been in the terror business longer than Al Qaeda, invented airline highjacking, and has traditionally responded to concrete offers of peace with refusal and more violence. But since terrorism’s failure to make Israel go away, the PA has adopted new methods. For Abbas, appealing to the international community and double-speak is the new terrorism, made easier by an eager willingness on the part of the West to sympathize with the Arabs based on racist double standards for behavior (dark-skinned people must follow their nature and commit violent acts to express their anger and frustration, while light-skinned people must observe every rule of restraint in handling theirs), belief in the Arabs’ false narrative of victimhood (which in fact is simply the Arabs’ failure to annihilate the Jews), and participation in a campaign intended to cripple Israel economically, politically, and intellectually. And none of this rules out Abbas’s commitment to teaching hatred and inciting violence against Israel, or his willingness to allow terror attacks to resume at any time, claiming that he cannot control the rage of his people or curb their freedom to express themselves through bloodletting. Obama adds that before Bin Laden’s assassination, “al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life.” Why Obama believes that the PA is still relevant outside the territories inhabited by Palestinians, or that the PA answers the need of its constituents for a better life, is never explained.
Obama has also stubbornly refused to see the corruption and oppression in other Middle Eastern countries before the start of the “Arab Spring,” including that of Bashar Assad in Syria. (Sidebar: See Barry Rubin’s discussion of the term “Arab Spring.” It’s an eye-opener.) After Assad quashed Lebanon’s government (only recently freed of the Syrian yoke after the Beirut Spring of 2005), installing Syrian-supported, Iranian-sponsored Hizbullah in the government and near the border with Israel and assassinating Lebanon’s own democratically elected prime minister, Obama recently reopened an American embassy in Damascus, normalizing relations between the two countries, and Hillary Clinton, just weeks before Assad’s forces opened fire on his own, unarmed civilians, called him “a reformer.” This is not foreign policy, or Realpolitik. It’s delusional.
Obama also stressed in his speech the importance of ensuring freedom of religion and of women to enjoy equal status with men in these turbulent Arab societies. While churches have been burned and Coptic Christians slaughtered in Egypt, and Christians everywhere concerned about their future in these revolutionary Arab states, Bethlehem is no longer a Christian city. Because of Muslim harassment, Christians who have the means have fled the country. And has the PA honored its commitment as part of the Oslo “peace” agreement to allow Jews access to their holy sites? Well, Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem is surrounded by a heavily secure bunker to protect worshipers and pilgrims from attack, there is a long list of Jewish worshipers denied access to Joseph’s Tomb in Ramallah, and just a couple of weeks ago a Palestinian policeman shot and murdered a Jewish worshiper at the tomb (yelling “Allahu akbar!” as he did so), so it’s apparent they haven’t. As for equal rights for women – well, in Arab society, that’s as likely as a peaceful gay pride parade through the streets of Mecca.
And regarding Israel and the Arabs here, Obama repeats the same slogans he has always repeated: the need to cast off “the burdens of the past,” the unsustainability of the status quo, the need of Arabs to “recognize” Israel, and the need of Israel to take “bold” steps for peace. These have been used in speeches so often, I’m not even sure what they mean anymore. The “burdens of the past” seems to be a euphemism for history, and that cannot be changed or ignored by anyone, least of all Jews and Arabs with long memories. (Americans, on the other hand, have a well-earned reputation for forgetting history.) It is undesirable to continue things the way they are, but since they’ve been this way for 44 years (longer, if one’s memory or knowledge of history goes back before 1967), why is davka this year the year things much change, especially when none of the other factors have altered? Arabs could save a huge amount of time by simply saying they recognize Israel, then reneging on that recognition and proceeding with their plans to destroy it. (I’m surprised they haven’t thought of this, since reneging on promises is something they’ve elevated to a fine art.) And Israel’s “bold steps” always involve more territorial concessions and lower security, which result in wars and increased terror attacks.
But when hope springs eternal, and the hopeful have been encouraged by what they believe will be positive changes across the Middle East, it’s hard to contain one’s enthusiasm. When dictators are in peril, it can only mean one thing to hopeful people: the dawn of universal democracy and peace. Simple regime change, from one corrupt, oppressive, power-hungry regime to another, is not part of Obama’s imagined outcome of the Arab Spring, but rather the belief that a “region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people – not just a few leaders – must believe peace is possible.” “Must” believe it possible – the language of hope, not certainty (or even likelihood).
Where I think Obama nails reality is in a comment he makes about how the “international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome.” That’s really it, isn’t it? I’ve suspected for years that the occasional frenzies of American presidents to solve the problems of the Middle East (using the same language, tactics, demands every time) are really an attempt to get the problem off everyone’s desk. The fact that none of them seems to understand the problems here, and that no one can be bothered to adhere to prior agreements (the San Remo Conference, UNSC Resolution 242, Oslo) is a damper and a side issue which is more comfortable to overlook than to overcome. When talks break down over real issues, the international community chooses to take it as a personal affront, as though Arab incitement and Jewish settlement building take place for no other reason than to undo the international community’s hard work.
In trying to be seen as an impartial broker, Obama may see it as his job to overlook these issues, but from Israel’s perspective, this is irresponsible and flies in the face of his professed friendship for Israel. An effective foreign policy necessitates knowing one’s enemy. I’m sure America turned a cold, analytical eye on Bin Laden, his activities and his movements, and this eventually reaped the reward of finding and killing him. But Israel, too, knows its enemies. It lives next door (and sometimes among) us. We have had long experience with them, some peaceful and fruitful, but much deadly and dangerous. We know what they teach their kids. We know from polls how they feel about suicide bombings (68% support them), Palestinian suffering (71% blame the Jews for Arab suffering after 1948), and Israelis in general (over 62% “believe Jews are a foreign imprint on the Middle East and are destined to be replaced by Palestinians,” with a similar percentage believing that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state). We know how they feel about terrorism (the PA recently named a square in Ramallah for Dalal Mughrabi, a terrorist responsible for the deaths of 37 civilians inside the Green Line, and the PA has just passed a law granting convicted Palestinian and Israeli Arab terrorists in Israeli prisons monthly salaries, with those serving sentences of more than 20 years receiving higher salaries, to be paid from the day of arrest until release). Obama’s call for Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 borders (including land swaps), which was already worked out in 2000 and again in 2008 and still rejected by the Arabs, is simply a return to the borders that led to the 1967 war. With his own statement, that “technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself,” how many more of these wars does he think Israel can survive? (See this video for a tutorial on why the 1949 Armistic lines, aka the June 4, 1967 borders are indefensible; hat tip: Westbankmama). And how does Obama think a Palestinian Arab state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will be “contiguous” without some arrangement for travel between them through Israeli territory?
The real upshot of Obama’s talk of borders and security as preconditions to talks is more of what bothers me about the whole “peace process”: Arabs get land, and Jews get promises. Land, once given, cannot be taken back. Promises once made are easily broken and, like the San Remo Resolution, forgotten by the rest of the world. Obama talks of “provisions … to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security,” and in the next sentence calls for the “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces … with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility.” More promises, and more farfetched assumptions. For Israel to trust that the people sworn to its destruction are to be handed control of the borders with Arab states that have so far (at least in Egypt, and weak Jordan could just as easily join in) proved highly cooperative in importing weapons and materiel to Palestinian terrorists to be used against Israel is wildly optimistic at best, mad at worst. And the final two gut-wrenching issues, i.e. the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees (using the current UN revised definition which includes all descendents of those displaced by the war), involve, again, the Jews giving the Arabs stuff in exchange for – what? More promises?
There have been alternative peace plans suggested by right-wing Israelis (to annex the West Bank and either make the Arabs there citizens or not) and, of course, there is the Arab longterm strategy, which is to challenge Israel’s legitimacy in international fora with a view toward chipping away at Israel’s territory, rights of self defense, and perhaps very existence. (A body which, they believe, voted a noxious country into existence can just as easily vote it out of existence.)
I don’t have a solution that will please everyone. I don’t necessarily know what would end the conflict forever (short of a major change in the Palestinian Arab narrative, or universal Israeli withdrawal to the Mediterranean). What I do know is that the current peace plans represent concession of too much land for Israelis, and too much peace for the Arabs. Exchanging land for hopes, promises, and “assurances,” as that done with Egypt, Gaza, and southern Lebanon, and their accompanying failures, should be remembered before Israel is pressured to accept any more such arrangements.