'B+' on democracy, 'D'- on Israel-Arab conflict

Truth is there's something for everyone in President Obama's MidEast speech: support for reform, commitment to Israel, Palestinian state, opposition to Iran & Syria.

But at base two things must be recognized: They're beginning to understand democracy; they still don't understand the Arab-Israeli conflict.

First, the Obama administration understands the issues relating to the desire for freedom in the Middle East, including the dangers - and should get credit for supporting and promoting democracy and reform in the region. Obama has started to talk the talk - not only applauding, but demanding that regimes in power, including Syria and Iran, stop killing their people and start responding to the legitimate demands of the governed. And walking the walk - in steps, and a bit late, but still important - by giving massive aid ($2 billion in funds and debt-forgiveness to Egypt alone!). What a message to the protesters in Syria and Yemen (and Gaza and Iran): overthrow your governments and not only will you be free, we (the West) will help you financially. That's worth an A. Telling Syria to stop repressing its people, and voicing support for all those struggling for freedom everywhere, is worth an A+.

His verbal support for 'universal' freedoms is important; but he needs to be more pro-active, and his call for 'reform' in Syrian and insistence on respect for 'universal rights' in Iran, were weak and passive. And the fact that he didn't even mention Saudi Arabia or Jordan or Lebanon is irresponsible and short-sighted. For all this, he deserves a B-. So put together: B+

Second, it's clear the Obama administration still doesn't get the Arab-Israeli conflict. They're learning - not only history and law, but the importance of nuance and language - and Obama's references to Israel as a Jewish State and national homeland for the Jewish people, to Hamas and its rejection of Israel, and to Palestinian (and others') efforts to delegitimize Israel, are important landmarks demonstrating this. President Obama would get an A for this. And his little-noticed reference to the Palestinians 'walking away from negotiations', thereby signalling that he recognizes, and holds them accountable, that they have made excuses for refusing to return to talks, is worthy of an A+.

And while many are suggesting that his reference to '1967 lines' is problematic, I somewhat disagree, and rather agree with Jeffrey Goldberg that there's little new here; as a 'basis' this has been understood for decades, and the words 'with agreed swaps' is code for negotiating the towns and neighborhoods which the Bush letter acknowledged - and all negotiations as well - are realities on the ground' which will be under Israeli sovereignty in the end. I could tweak the sentences to better reflect reality, and/or Israeli preferences, but that's not the point. And none of this, nor the below, has any bearing on whether one supports immediate withdrawal from the disputed territories (Judea/Samaria, the "West Bank") or eternal Jewish control of them; this is not about politics, this is about logic, history, law and morality.

No, my main and significant disappointment with President Obama's speech, and the reason I note they still don't understand the conflict, is the framing he sets, and the suggestions he offers as next steps.

As so many do - wrongly, based on a combination of visceral support for the 'underdog', mis-reading of history, politically-led misunderstanding of international law, and mostly the success of Palestinian propaganda permeating public discourse - Obama views "the occupation' as the primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East, and that Israel is 'in the wrong' at base, and his speech repeatedly reflects this, from references to Palestinian suffering to territory to effects on other countries in the region. He remains captive to the idea that this conflict is a border conflict, rather than a national conflict where one nation - the Arab nation and Palestinians in particular object to and refuse to accept the existence of the Jewish nation in this land.

But more, Obama opined that starting with borders and security, we could move on to what he called "emotional" issues, Jerusalem and refugees. Here too he misstepped, not recognizing Israel's absolute right to Jerusalem (under law* and history, not as a 'pro-Israel' stance), and not calling clearly for Palestinian refugees to return only to a Palestinian state. And moreover, he could have used this platform both to note the fundamental responsibility of the Arab world FOR those refugees, and to recognize the similar number of Jewish refugees from Arab lands (who have never been compensated nor recognized, but rather were simply absorbed into their country as so many millions of other refugees were over the past half-century).

All this deserves at least a C.

But here's the rub: he didn't even mention, let alone focus on, the real primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East, the continual rejection of any Jewish connection to this land, and hence of the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel, by a century of Arab, Muslim, and then Palestinian leaders. This is what makes this a national conflict, not a simple border dispute; this is where the Obama administration once again has flunked the class.

Obama himself said, " people -– not just one or two leaders -- must believe peace is possible." But he did not note - nor insist - that Arab leaders, and in particular Palestinian leaders, have continually taught their people that peace is not only not possible, but not desirable with Israel and the Jews. In fact, instead, he repeated the old mantra (and not very strongly at that) that Hamas (or Hizbollah, or Al Quaida, take your pick) are the bad guys, rejecting Israel's existence, instead of boldly demanding of Palestinian and all Arab leaders to finally accept Israel, as a Jewish state, and to cease attacking Israel and the Jews not only with missiles and bombs and threats of destruction but with textbooks and speeches and TV shows and statues dedicated to 'heroic martyr' terrorists.

This is not propaganda; had Obama and his advisors taken the time to notice, the events of Sunday underscore this very fact. Demonstrations on May 15, the date of Israel's founding, commemorated/mourned by Arabs (Palestinian and other) as "the Catastrophe", were organized throughout the region. These are not against 'the occupation'. (Were they so, they would be held on June 4 or 6, ie. commemorating Israel's advance into the territories.) In fact, in the disputed territories and Palestinian Authority (Judea/Samaria, the "West Bank") protests were decidedly muted - as most Palestinians living in the territories are aware that they are on their way to establishing a State there, are ready to live with Israel in peace, and are interested in protesting mainly against their own corrupt and authoritarian leaders. The demonstrations which made the news (and in which people were injured and killed, mostly by Lebanese forces it turns out) were on the borders of Israel, not in the "occupied" areas - and the calls were for Israel's destruction, not withdrawal from the territories.

President Obama does get that in a non-democracy, leaders focus on an external enemy to justify their own repression - he referred to Arabs' criticism of Israel being their only 'free speech'. He just doesn't get that this focus on Israel and the Jews as being responsible not only for all Palestinian suffering but for all the ills of the region (and often the world) is coordinated and propagated and allowed by all Arab and Muslim regimes, to a greater or lesser degree, and not at all least by the Fatah 'moderate' leadership of the PLO and PA. And he doesn't get that this - and nothing Israel actually does, even when it makes mistakes - is the real thing preventing peace and reconciliation in the Middle East.

This is the crux of the matter; these are the facts, and they are not disputed at all by the majority of Arabs and Muslims and especially their leaders, with a few enlightened and courageous exceptions. The Obama administration doesn't get it; they deserve an F, and to be kicked out of the class.

Had the Obama administration understood this, they could and would never focus on 'borders and security' as the first steps in any potential renewal of the 'peace process'. Nor would they ignore the demands of the quartet for Hamas to recognize Israel, renounce terror, and abide by earlier agreements - none of which Obama mentioned. Referring to Hamas, while ignoring the evidence that Fatah and Hamas (and the rest of the Arab world's leaders) are different only in style and degree, he says Palestinians have to find a 'credible answer' to the question "How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?" But he offered no demand for what that answer is, which goes directly to the heart of the matter. You can't; America wouldn't; Israel won't, either.

The larger picture is still clear: Israel has negotiated, and continues to call for a return to talks, with those Palestinians who at the very least make the pretense of accepting our right to be here and renouncing violence, and who at least seem to be more interested in creating their own state than destroying ours.

Unfortunately, even a 'peace agreement' and the establishment of a Palestinian state in most of the disputed territories, won't bring real peace to our region; only leaders and people in the Muslim and Arab world who truly want peace, and not merely a pause in the centuries-old war against the Jews, can make that happen.

If the Obama team wants to really help bring peace to this area, they have a great deal of homework to do. Otherwise, they're receiving a D-, and are pretty close to failing the class.


*Professor, Judge Schwebel, former president of the International Court of Justice in the Hague writing inWhat Weight to Conquest [1994]:

"(a) a state [Israel] acting in lawful exercise of its right of self-defense may seize and occupy foreign territory as long as such seizure and occupation are necessary to its self-defense;

"(b) as a condition of its withdrawal from such territory, that State may require the institution of security measures reasonably designed to ensure that that territory shall not again be used to mount a threat or use of force against it of such a nature as to justify exercise of self-defense;

"(c) Where the prior holder of territory had seized that territory unlawfully [Jordan], the state which subsequently takes that territory in the lawful exercise of self-defense [Israel] has, against that prior holder, better title."

"As between Israel, acting defensively in 1948 and 1967, on the one hand, and her Arab neighbors, acting aggressively, in 1948 and 1967, on the other, Israel has the better title in the territory of what was Palestine, including the whole of Jerusalem."


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