Saturday, March 23, 2013

A New Start


One thing I’ll say for the President: he has learned a thing or two about Middle East diplomacy since his speech in Cairo four years ago.   That speech, combined with Obama’s failure to address its ramifications, turned out to be one of the biggest disasters of his first term.   This week, when our President returned to the region, he was a much wiser man.  What is far from clear, however, is whether the learning he gained from the school of hard knocks will make a difference on the ground.   Given that his Israeli approval rating when the trip began was a whopping 10 percent, I tend to be a bit skeptical.   We present-day Jews might not be as stiff-necked as our Biblical ancestors, but Obama had four years to create a decent “first impression” and never could get the job done.   It will take a lot of work to undo that damage, and a few days of speechmaking isn’t going to do the job.  

But it was a good start.

If you’ve been with me since the early days of this blog, you’ll note that one of the main reasons I supported Obama over Hillary was because I thought he was a born diplomat.  Accordingly, I felt that he offered the best chance of brokering a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.   I still think he has a disposition that in many ways is ideally suited to the job of mediator.  But what I didn’t bank on was how utterly ignorant he was about the region at the time he took office.  There is no other word to describe a President who made concrete demands of the Israelis, but not the Palestinians (other than to refrain from terrorism), and who seemed to suggest that Israel’s claim to exist was based on the Holocaust rather than on thousands of years of Jewish history (which included a lengthy period of control over the Land of Israel).  Even a casual observer of the Middle East should have known that such an approach would only get Israel’s back up.  And indeed, for much of his current tenure as Prime Minister, Netanyahu could count on increasing his own popularity domestically simply by using Obama as a punching bag.  That’s not exactly what I had in mind when I envisioned Barack as a natural peacemaker.

This past week, though, Obama was the mediator I had originally expected him to be.   He made no major gaffes.   He appeared to be even-handed.  And he seemed to be viscerally committed both to the idea of Israel as a Jewish State (a term he would have been afraid to use in Cairo) and the notion that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is an injustice to the Palestinian people, who deserve a state of their own.   When it comes to Hamas, Obama was sharply critical, even dismissive.  He might as well have been speaking about al Qaeda.   But when it came to the Palestinian Authority or the Netanyahu Government, Obama spoke as someone who was truly looking to extend his hand in friendship.   If anything, he was speaking empathically to those leaders of those governments by publicly recognizing that they have to deal with a lot of hard-liners whenever they wade into the peace process, and he of all people can sympathize with their plight.  

Those of us who are passionate about the cause of peace in the Holy Land should feel a little better this weekend than we felt last weekend.   And I say that notwithstanding the continual parade of horribles emerging from Syria.  Barack Obama has signaled that he may yet have a second act when it comes to the region.   But I use the word “may” with plenty of caution.   Let’s grant that our President has learned lessons from his past blunders.   Let’s grant that he has found his voice in presenting himself as a rare bird: someone who is deeply pro-Israel and pro-Palestine.   I still am not convinced that he is going to make peacemaking a major priority of his second term, for this issue has yet to captivate the interest of the American public and I have my doubts that it ever will.  What I don’t doubt is that unless Obama makes the issue a priority, he has little to offer the peace process.  You see, the Israelis and Palestinians are sophisticated when it comes to that process – they don’t need orators, they need warriors.   Specifically, they need an American President who will fight for peace as fervently and indefatigably as he might wage a war.  

The value of Barack Obama as a peacemaker is that he has the potential to be a trusted and respected friend of Netanyahu and Abbas alike.  But if he wants to be their friend, he has to show that he cares about the welfare of their people almost as much as they do.  It’s not a trick he can pull off without blood, sweat and tears.  

You can win political campaigns with rhetoric and fundraising.  But in this area, fundraising is irrelevant and high-level rhetoric, however beautifully packaged, is only slightly more useful.  Does Barack have the commitment, the energy, and the passion to get the job done?   My prayers say yes.  My mind is more skeptical.  

Note:  I expect to be out of town next weekend, so please don’t expect a post for the rest of the month.  Take care, enjoy the NCAA Tournaments (the men’s, as well as the women’s), and Go Stanford!

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