What Obama Didn't Say: Why Peace Requires More than Israeli Willpower
I don’t have big problems with what President Barack Obama said in his lecture to Israeli students. He said that peace is good, that peace is good for Israel, that peace is possible, and that people should work for peace and conciliation.
All fine sentiments. The students applauded wildly because they didn't think he was attacking Israel but voicing the sentiments they already hold, indeed that most Israelis and their leaders have held for decades. The only problem is that Obama doesn't seem to understand this fact.
Young people tend to think that the world is completely changeable. They look at current reality and see foolishness and suffering and contradictions in it. They think it possible to re-imagine the world.
Of course, change is often desirable, as long as it is a change for the better, and possible. Many things have happened — the fall of the regime in Egypt; the Syrian civil war, etc. — that were previously thought improbable.
And yet there are reasons why things are as they are. What you want to see happen must be a realistic goal or else it can turn out very badly. In 1979 -- I remember this vividly -- the idea seemed undeniable to most people that the fall of Iran's shah had to produce a better outcome. That theme of revolution welcomed and then becoming a bloodbath goes back as far as the French Revolution.
But 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.
This is not a new idea. It is something Israelis have been thinking about and working on for decades and especially during the last twenty years. Israel’s declaration of independence, May 14, 1948, declared:
We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.
During the “peace process” era of the 1990s, Israelis worked strenuously to build such bridges. I taught a course on political analysis at a Palestinian university (Yasir Arafat’s niece was one of my students) and knew that doing so was at some risk to my life. When the university's public report came out afterward, I was the only person on the teaching staff not identified by country. They could or would not admit that they had a professor from Israel. An Israeli doctor volunteering to help heal people in the Gaza Strip fared worse. He was axed to death.
Things, however, went beyond that. The Palestinian Authority decreed that there would be no “normalization,” and people or institutions were ordered and threatened against such trust-building measures. One Israeli center invited 35 Palestinians to discuss conciliation. Two came to the first meeting and only one, a non-Arab, came to the second. The resistance to such bridge-building comes from the Palestinian side, even if people want to do so but are intimidated.
Four years ago, I stood in Cairo in front of an audience of young people -- politically, religiously, they must seem a world away. But the things they want, they’re not so different from what the young people here want. They want the ability to make their own decisions and to get an education, get a good job; to worship God in their own way; to get married; to raise a family.
Perhaps. But the problem is how their wants are to be interpreted. It is a miracle of self-imposed ignorance that Obama makes no mention of what has happened in those four years. In country after country radical Islamists have been taking over who define what they want (hint: genocide against the Jews and Israel being wiped off the map). The moderate young people Obama has described are being repressed. Some have fled Egypt. Obama has done nothing to help them.
The same is true of those young Palestinians that I met with this morning. The same is true for young Palestinians who yearn for a better life in Gaza.
Perhaps when those young people take over from that repressive, undemocratic state things will change. But won’t Israel have to wait until that change comes? And for each one of such people there are one thousand who support violence, believe in total victory, and want Israel dead.
Even within Israel itself, Obama was heckled by an Israeli Arab college student who was horrified by his "pro-Israel" statements and told interviewers later that he wanted Israel as a state to disappear. Guess he wasn't one of those young people. Would all Palestinians ready to live in their Arab Muslim state alongside Israel as a Jewish state please raise their hands?
“That's where peace begins," Obama continued, "not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people.” Yet what has happened in the hearts of people on the other side? That’s where the problem is. And if they have peace in their hearts they better keep it hidden there or else.
In his 1948 book about apartheid South Africa, Cry the Beloved Country, Alan Paton wrote:
I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.
But which side in this case can make that statement? Israel? The Palestinians and other Arabs? Both? Does a mirror image exist of equivalency? If Obama really did comprehend the situation, he would press a lot harder on the Palestinian side. Every time he has asked for help, Israel has said “yes”; the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have said “no.”
Obama’s view, like that of many others, disregards these realities. Imagine that with a straight face Obama could say:
Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see.
Yet the people have been pushing Israeli leaders to take risks since the 1970s, the leaders have themselves initiated risk-taking for peace, and one of them even died in that quest (Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin). Didn't Prime Minister Ariel Sharon take big risks by initiating a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip that was repaid by rockets from Hamas?
How has Israel been rewarded for the risks already taken? With even more risks and international criticism.
Who is pushing in Palestinian politics? The only force that counts is that which wants an even more radical and violent strategy. Can you imagine a peace group being formed on any Palestinian campus? The idea is ridiculous. Obama cannot deliver the other side for peace -- he can't even get them to negotiate at all. The president puts the job on someone else.
Yes, we want a two-state solution. Yes, we put ourselves in the shoes of the Palestinians and such empathy and reportage is daily in all the Israeli newspapers. It is the opposite that is never true.
It is a slander on Israel to talk about the situation as if old folks impose hatred on young people. In 1993, the nation was overwhelmingly united by hope. By around 1999 even my conservative friends were open to a two-state solution. Israeli textbooks do not contain hate and neither do the teaching, films, and television.
Look at the young people who’ve not yet learned a reason to mistrust, or…[have] learned to overcome a legacy of mistrust that they inherited from their parents, because they simply recognize that we hold more hopes in common than fears that drive us apart.
Where? A lone Egyptian blogger who speaks for peace with Israel after 30 years of a peace agreement and faces serious threats and harassment? Let's have the names of such young people. They are almost entirely, I'm sad to say, imaginary.
Why did the Israeli students cheer? Not because they were being stirred to revolt against their own government but because they understandably want to believe that they can bring peace by simply trying to do so, regardless of what any other nation does.
Who on the Palestinian side can be said to have done such a thing, at least publicly? Very few. How many on the Israeli side have done such a thing? Hundreds of thousands.
One should not drown out hope. My goal is to define the conditions that offer a way forward to a hope that can be realized, not a wishful thinking that would entail terrible costs. As someone who in the past spoke loudly of hope, I have found in big things and small that the only times I was wrong was when I followed Obama’s advice.
On what basis does Obama suggest that things can change? Strength, the very factor he downplays in other circumstances.
There will be many who say this change is not possible, but remember this -- Israel is the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakable support of the most powerful country in the world. Israel is not going anywhere.
But did Israeli strength turn a withdrawal from most of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip into peace? How is Israel’s power affected by Islamist regimes in Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Tunisia, and soon in Syria? How is that reduced if Iran gets nuclear weapons? I have no doubt Israel will win, but at what costs? What additional risks can be justified in such a situation?
And how “unshakable” is U.S. support? Yes, the basic alliance is unshakable, but that, of course, does not translate into support for all Israeli actions to use that strength, which therefore reduces the usefulness of that strength. Is there unshakable U.S. support, for example, to overthrow the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip and turn that territory over to the "moderate" "partner for peace" Palestinian Authority?
To say “Israel is not going anywhere” means Israelis should not be afraid of a second Holocaust or being wiped off the map. Granted. But they only need not be afraid of that if the country follows proper strategies. And, again, the costs of survival can be higher or lower.
It is one thing to make optimism and hope for peace part of the equation — which is why I have no great problem with the things he said —but what about the rest?
Yet I see no risk in what Obama said. First, it is standard U.S. policy. Second, Israel is now immunized by experience against taking foolish risks and making unrequited concessions. Third, because it does reflect Israeli preferences. If Obama wants to be patronizing, that's more acceptable if he is ready to be Israel's patron rather than distancing himself.
The vast majority of Israelis know or should know they cannot unilaterally bring peace, a step already tried several times. Been there, done that. They know or should know they cannot unilaterally change the other side’s attitude by proving themselves to the Palestinians and other Arab publics to be good people. Even much of the Western elites and mass media don’t believe Israel wants peace after decades of such efforts.
Here’s the truest thing Obama said:
Israel has the wisdom to see the world as it is, but -- this is in your nature -- Israel also has the courage to see the world as it should be.
Obama voiced the part about how the world should be. He forgot the part about Israel seeing the world as it really is.
image courtesy shutterstock / Jim Vallee