Monday, May 23, 2011

President Obama's Speech Take 2

Yesterday President Obama spoke at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC.  He offered several clarifications of his Thursday speech.  The transcript and video of the speech can be found here.  The president said in part: "[T]he United sees the historic changes sweeping the Middle East and North Africa as a moment of great challenge, but also a moment of opportunity for greater peace and security for the entire region, including the State of Israel."

I remain unconvinced that the time is ripe to move the peace process forward.  I find the changes sweeping the region unsettling, but the president, like every president before him, can try to move peace forward.  Despite the fact that I am more often than not an optimist  I find myself deeply pessimistic that today a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians can be reached.

People have asked "Why did the president give this speech now?"  Here is my read on that question.  People who become presidents actually believe that they can actually change the world.  (Rabbis believe this too, although for some it might be confined to their small little worlds.)  Interestingly the greatest figures in history were those who had leadership thrust upon them and yet still managed to change the world for the better.  (I am thinking in particular of Truman here who supported the nascent State of Israel.)  Some really do change the world for the better.  Others of course trip on their grand visions and instead make matters worse.  But I don't doubt that Obama's intentions are true.  We appear to live in an age when people think that if they disagree with someone they must cast aspersions on his intentions as well.  Holding someone's opinions to be false does not necessarily mean that their intentions are false as well.  President Obama believes in his message of hope.  He also thinks that he can move the world in such a positive direction.  I pray he is right.  I fear he is wrong.  I trust that his intentions are true.

Yossi Klein Halevi writes in The New Republic.
As an ambivalent Israeli, I know that a Palestinian state is an existential necessity for me—saving Israel from the untenable choice between being a Jewish and a democratic state, from the moral erosion of occupation, from the growing movement to again turn the Jews, via the Jewish state, into the symbol of evil.

But I also know that a Palestinian state is an existential threat to me—forcing Israel back into eight-mile-wide borders between Palestine and the Mediterranean Sea, with the center of the country vulnerable to rocket attacks from the West Bank hills that overlook it. And, if Tel Aviv were to become the next Sderot—the Israeli town on the Gaza border that has endured thousands of missile attacks following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005—the international community might well try to prevent us from defending ourselves against terrorists embedded in a civilian population, with all the consequences of asymmetrical warfare. Moreover, a generation of Palestinians has been raised to see Israelis as Nazis, thieves, inventors of a history not rooted in this land. Alone among national movements, only the Palestinian cause conditions its dream of statehood on the disappearance of another state. (And that is the dream that not only of Hamas but Fatah, too, actively incites in internal Palestinian discourse.) Alone among occupiers, only Israel fears that territorial withdrawal won’t merely diminish but destroy it.

And so, there were two sides of me listening to the president. The dovish side embraced his vision of an interim agreement that would leave the issues of Jerusalem and refugee return to a later stage and instead focus on ending the occupation and providing security guarantees. But the hawkish side of me wondered whether this president has learned anything about the Middle East....
So: Yes to the vision. But no, we can’t implement it anytime soon. In other words: Yes, we can’t.
President Obama went on to reiterate the US commitment to Israel's security and to maintaining Israel's "qualitative military edge."  He said,  "...[T]he bonds between the United State and Israel are unbreakable, and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad."  He recognized that Hamas seeks Israel's destruction and that he would fight efforts to de-legitimize the State of Israel.

I also agree with his own assessment that there was nothing original in his Thursday speech regarding his reference to the 1967 borders.  He said publicly what has been nearly agreed to in private.  I quote:
If there's a controversy, then, it's not based in substance.  What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately.  I have done so because we cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace.  The world is moving too fast.  The extraordinary challenges facing Israel would only grow.  Delay will undermine Israel's security and the peace that the Israeli people deserve.
In my judgment, Prime Minister Netanyahu played last week's diplomatic challenges wrong.  He should have publicly thanked the president for his assurances about US commitments to Israel and perhaps quibbled with him in private.  Netanyahu missed an opportunity to take the high road.  The last thing Israel needs now is to appear like the stumbling block to peace.  But Netanyahu might have been more concerned about his supporters in Israel than the world at large.  I of course don't doubt Netanyahu's intentions either.  I think he is deeply sensitive to the tragedies of Jewish history.  But he appears to see them everywhere, most especially in any future changes.  Netanyahu acts as if the status quo is sustainable.  He is wrong on this point.  The Jewish present should not always be written with the imprint of the Holocaust and Inquisition. Remembrance should not be turned into intransigence. 

Also, I have little faith in the Palestinians and suspect that if Netanyahu had instead shouted words of thanks and praise towards Obama Palestinian recalcitrance would have again shown their true colors.  For decades the Palestinians have built their nationalist movement on the destruction of Israel and Zionism.  They have walked away from what President Obama now proposes two times.  Their continued commemoration of the 1948 creation of the State of Israel as Al Nakba, the catastrophe, suggests that they are still more interested in destroying Israel than creating Palestine.   This is why the recent Hamas-Fatah accord is so catastrophic and in particular the apparent sidelining of Salam Fayyad.  He was actually busy with state building and focused on really building something.

In the end it should feel decidedly uncomfortable to have our president quote the Jewish tradition to us, reminding us of the power of hope.  "The Talmud teaches us that so long as a person still has life, they should never abandon faith.  And that lesson seems especially fitting today."  We are the people who have held on to hope through the darkest of centuries.  We can't let go now.

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