Monday, May 30, 2011


Only last month, I had to listen to members of Red Sox Nation whine over the fact that their beloved team could only muster two wins in their first dozen games – good for last place in the division. Well, look now, sports fans: times have changed and the whining has stopped. Now, those same Red Sox find themselves in first place, a game ahead of the hated Yankees.

Strangely enough, members of Hamas Nation are going through the same kind of renaissance. Precisely four weeks ago, they were mourning the death of “holy warrior” Osama bin Laden. But now, that tragedy seems like a distant memory. Subsequent events have focused attention away from Osama, away from their own predictable reaction to his death, and squarely on their hated enemy: the “Jewish State.” Believe me, it’s precisely the kind of attention Hamas has to relish: all criticism of Israel, all the time.

That at least is what I have been hearing from American op-ed writers and TV talking heads. My Middle East Peace group has joined in the chorus. And the message is invariably the same: Netanyahu came to America and demonstrated once and for all that he really couldn’t give a damn about peace but only cares about consolidating his power in Israel. Indeed, the fact that Bibi’s poll numbers are way up back in the Holy Land after his trip to Washington further plays into the anti-Israel narrative. At this point, it’s not only Netanyahu who is bearing the brunt of the peace community’s criticism but, by implication, the Israeli people too. I’m hearing more and more calls for the Palestinians to assume the mantle of the African-American or East Indian civil rights movement and treat Israel the way Martin Luther King Jr. treated Bull Connor or Mahatma Gandhi treated the English imperialists.

Somewhere, deep in a dungeon in Gaza City, Hamas apparatchiks are lighting up their cigars.

Well, alright. Let me set the record straight. I realize that there is a huge difference between the Hamas and the peace community. The one advocates terrorism; the other, non-violent resistance. Nobody can sanely compare King or Gandhi, on the one hand, with Ismail Haniyah, on the other – that would be like comparing Dorothy with Mrs. Gulch. But note what is going on: with the focus of the international community exclusively on Netanyahu and the so-called “Arab Spring,” Israel has taken on the mantle of tyrant and the Palestinians as oppressed victims. Or at least, so goes the narrative that is gaining prominence in Europe and is surely quite dominant in the Arab world, including the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas has got to be thrilled. After all, de-legitimizing Israel was always one of their highest goals, and with each passing day, they are seeing it come to fruition.

How is Israel losing its legitimacy? It hasn’t been the result of Hamas’ efforts. The one-two punch is being delivered by Israel herself and her so-called “greatest ally.” I’m referring to the recent conduct of Netanyahu and Obama.

Barack went first. He repeated the same mistake that he made in Cairo during the first year of his presidency. In both cases, Barack gave speeches that took on but a single issue of controversy: whether Israel needs to stop settling the land that will have to be returned to the Palestinians as part of any viable two-state solution. In Cairo, Barack called for a settlement freeze. Recently, in Washington, he called for a return to the ’67 borders with land swaps. It’s precisely the same vision. And all of us in the peace community agree that Barack is correct on that issue – if there is to be peace between these peoples, the Israelis must make concessions on the very point that Barack has been emphasizing.

But here’s the rub: he seems absolutely unwilling to ask anything controversial from the Palestinians. They can go on referring to the foundation of Israel as the “catastrophe,” they can go on teaching their children that Israel has no claim to ANY state in the region, and they can go on referring to the concept of the “Jewish State” as a racist, offensive moniker … and Barack will offer them the thinnest of rebukes. In Barack’s world, the Palestinians need not make any effort to give Israel comfort that they will live with a Jewish State beside a Palestinian one. Indeed, Barack doesn’t seem to appreciate why such an effort is needed. All he is able to focus on is Israel’s failure to give back Palestinian land. So the result is that when he gives his speeches, one side is put on the defensive and the other side is emboldened.

Ideally, the American President would ask concessions from both sides and the two peoples would say something like “I won’t concede unless they do.” Then, they would enter into negotiations – and voila, the negotiations lead to the mutual concessions necessary to usher in peace. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. But since Barack demands nothing from the Palestinians, they don’t even have to enter into negotiations to improve their own standing internationally. And as for Bibi, the easy way out is precisely to roar back with defiance. He did that two years ago after Cairo, and he did it again this past fortnight -- first at the White House, then at Congress. His point was the most pedestrian one that a Middle East leader could make: that his own people will not be pushed around. Yes, he suggested, Israel supports two states for two peoples (at least in theory). But never did Bibi give an inch on settlements or on Israel’s willingness to negotiate with a Government that includes Hamas. And the result is yet another missed opportunity at a time when the conditions seem so ripe for peace.

It wasn’t long ago when Bibi would whine that Israel couldn’t reasonably be asked to make peace with the Palestinians because they were so divided, and a treaty with one Palestinian faction couldn’t guarantee peace with the others. Now, Bibi says he can’t make peace with the Palestinians because they are unified and have included in their coalition the hated Hamas, a terrorist organization. It’s a message that says to those Palestinians who truly want peace that “you are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” And it makes Bibi look like a guy who really doesn’t want a two-state solution after all. By contrast, the Palestinians need only sit back and watch Israel make fools of itself. Even those Palestinians who don’t support a two state solution aren’t required to show their cards – Israel is more than happy to fold its own hand first.

The greatest shame of all this is that we are living in what should be an unusually opportune time to rekindle peace talks. The sands of change have engulfed the Middle East, and the Arab Street is poised to bring to Palestine what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt. Israel, which has had the upper hand militarily, is losing some of its key allies in the region, and it can already see the potential for less security if it maintains the status quo. Moreover, the Israeli leadership cannot help but notice the lessons from their friend Mubarak: he who waits to make a bold progressive move might soon find that he has lost his chance. In addition, Israel can hardly expect a better Palestinian leader than Abbas, who at the moment is still in power. So why not give it a try?
It’s a real head shaker. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that someone cast a spell on this region. Both sides say they want to end this interminable war, and both sides would appear better off if they did so. Yet somehow, it endures. And as it endures, observers have to wonder whether the critical mass of those who lead these two peoples truly want peace after all.

We’ve all grown accustomed to seeing the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships blow their opportunities for peace. What’s especially frustrating, however, is that we in America had once thought that we had elected a President who could bring these two peoples to the table, whereas he obviously has no clue how to make that happen. It’s the area in which I thought Barack was poised to be most successful, and ironically, it may be the area in which he has failed the most.

Maybe black magic is the only explanation for the failure of this peace process. It seemed apt in the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s … why shouldn’t it apply today?

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