I listened to President Obama’s speech “A Moment of Opportunity” on Thursday and read it again Friday with the ears and eyes of a centrist advocate for realistic peace. I heard things and see things in the speech with which I agree and some with which I disagree. What is abundantly clear from the speech is that the President’s understanding of the role of history and experience as well as his views of the purpose of American Foreign Policy positions are not in accord with those traditionally held by most past Presidents or promoted through American diplomatic efforts in past generations. This difference of viewpoint is unsettling for many and a breath of fresh air for others.
The real questions we must ask as advocates for the Jewish state, the state for the Jewish people, are “Is this difference of viewpoint good for the Jews? In what ways is it good? In what ways is it problematic?” Note also that there may not be any viewpoint that is not problematic in some ways.
President Obama is not a fan of the history of conflicts between nations and peoples. I don’t say that meaning that he doesn’t study it, doesn’t know about it, etc… I mean that he doesn’t like what history teaches if it doesn’t allow for experimentation with new ideas and change toward ideals. In his speech concerning the Middle East, the President repeatedly noted the failings of the “status-quo” and historical norms in the region. Just as examples:
Divisions of tribe, ethnicity and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else.
But the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and diversion won’t work anymore…
But he also notes that the normative historical approach of the United States toward foreign policy, in fact, the normative approach of all nations toward foreign policy, is problematic in his view and must change. Such policy has led peoples who have not agreed with us and/or have been negatively impacted by America’s advocacy for America’s interests to dislike or even hate America. The President even noted how we have made enemies and suffered attacks because we pursued our interests.
Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests [American Interests] will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind. Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our own interests at their expense. Given that this mistrust runs both ways — as Americans have been seared by hostage taking, violent rhetoric, and terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of our citizens — a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and Muslim communities.
Furthering this argument, President Obama explained that this is why he reached out to the Arab world in Cairo. What the President states here is confusing, not because of his word choice, but because of his office. The job of the President of the United States is to advance the interests of the people of the United States and it is absolutely assured that those interests will come into conflict with many people around the world for a whole host of reasons, especially those who advocate for economic and political control and influence that it is in the United States’ interest to maintain or expand. Might such interests require repression of those who would act directly against the interests of the United States and its allies? This is a major conflict of interest that goes unmentioned in the paragraph below, but cannot be ignored by the President.
That’s why, two years ago in Cairo, I began to broaden our engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. I believed then — and I believe now — that we have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self determination of individuals. The status quo is not sustainable. Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder.
The President then takes a truly radical position when he states:
So we face an historic opportunity… There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity. Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise. But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.
What is “the world as it should be?” The conflict between the world as it is and the world as it should be is enormous. What does that mean for Saudi Arabia, friend of America, dictatorship, and theocratic society? What does it mean for Israel when Palestinian self-determination may be in direct conflict with Israeli existence?
The Israeli-Arab Conflict
Regarding the Israeli-Arab Conflict, the President correctly notes that there is suffering on all sides. It certainly would be much better if everyone could just get along. While noting the results of the absence of peace, there is no mention of the fact that in the year 2000, every aspect of the situation described below could have been altered for the better were it not for Yassir Arafat’s refusal to agree to peace at Camp David and his support of intifada in the aftermath of his failure to agree to peace. In other words, the suffering of the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the larger cost all may be attributed to the actions of one side of the conflict, yet the implication is that both sides are to blame.
For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region. For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could get blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own. Moreover, this conflict has come with a larger cost the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security, prosperity, and empowerment to ordinary people.
It may be true that both sides have distanced themselves from the situation that existed in 2000 and that both sides have changed the facts on the ground in such a way that the Camp David solution is no longer valid. The question, raised by the President, is whether or not the changes on the ground and changes in the region make it impossible for the process to move forward right now.
My administration has worked with the parties and the international community for over two years to end this conflict, yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks. The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on for decades, and sees a stalemate. Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward.
I tend to think that the question is not whether or not the process can move forward, but whether or not it can move forward at this moment in time. While indeed there may be concern that the process may never move forward, circumstances at this moment in time would seem to make it virtually impossible for movement to occur now, even with, if not especially with, radical upheavals occurring throughout the region. One could easily occur against the Palestinian Authority, bringing Hamas to power. President Obama offered a differing opinion.
I disagree. At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever.
However, the President later noted that:
In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel — how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist. In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.
President Obama rightly criticized Palestinian efforts to avoid negotiations and to act through the United Nations:
For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.
Then the President discussed Israel and America’s support for its security:
As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums.
However, the President, having pointed out how it may well be impossible for Israel to negotiate with Hamas, seemed to act as if that was somehow irrelevant and that Israel should act as if it were not the case:
But precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.
President Obama then cited a number of arguments for why Israel needs to negotiate now which are all individually questionable. First:
The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself.
The first part is true for certain, but if the second part is true, I’m not sure that it supports what the President is suggesting. If it is more difficult to defend borders, then having a greater buffer zone than it once did could be seen as essential, thus negating any thought that the 1967 lines, which were not secure in 1967, could be so in 2011.
A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people — not just a few leaders — must believe peace is possible.
The impact of populism is highly questionable. Populism has led to wars against the Jews and wars against Israel in the past. Why must they believe peace is possible? And what if they do not primarily desire peace? What if, as in Egypt for example, the popular viewpoint is anti-peace?
The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome.
I think the obvious response here from both sides is, “Sorry to bore you.” In my view, this should not have been said. It does not matter at all unless backed by a threat to act. I do not see how the Palestinians are being threatened by the International Community. Is Israel being threatened by the International Community? If so, doesn’t this qualify as an “attempt to single it out for criticism in international forums?” Didn’t the President just moments earlier say that the US would not allow it to be singled out?
The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.
True, if we are talking about a one state solution, but not if the occupied people is hostile and refuses to make peace. In that case, one absolutely can continue to do so indefinitely. Israel must unless the Palestinians change the situation.
The President then correctly concludes:
Ultimately, it is up to Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them, nor can endless delay make the problem go away.
Then President Obama states what I believe to have been the most important statement in the entire speech, stressing the Israel is and will be a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people.
But what America and the international community can do is state frankly what everyone knows: a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.
So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel.
At this point, the President could have stopped and the speech would have been better. However, he didn’t. The President went into details that while not necessarily as bad as they sound to some, clearly could be interpreted to be placing America wholly on the side of the Palestinians in negotiations concerning future borders. While it has been the case that previous negotiations have been largely based upon the 1967 lines, those lines were seen as a general guideline that would be substantially modified in order to achieve secure borders and this agreement on the general boundaries was a part of the negotiations, not an assumption leading into them. Thus when the President read the paragraph below, he ended up causing consternation. Meanwhile, those among the glass is half full crowd might interpret these very same words to imply that the President is not insisting that Israel return to the 1967 lines at all, but a modification of them that includes the settlement blocks, defensive adjustments, and Jerusalem. My understanding of the speech was that this is what the President intended.
The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.
President Obama added:
The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
What does a “contiguous state” mean? Are we talking about a West Bank that is in one piece? Or are we talking about some sort of road that would connect Gaza with the West Bank? This should not have been left open to question.
The President went fairly far in defending Israel’s right to self-defense and discussed details of the security that would be provided. This should please any advocate for Israel. The President was very strong in his support of Israeli defense.
Unfortunately, we already know that weaponry easily makes its way into Gaza and into Southern Lebanon. It is only Israel’s presence on all sides of the West Bank that prevents weaponry from entering there.
As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself — by itself — against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. The duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.
President Obama went further still. The President went on to indicate that the “Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state,” one of the major parts of negotiations, before negotiations begin, in fact as a “foundation” for negotiations. Taken in conjunction with the statement that the negotiations should be based upon the 1967 lines, the combination could lead any reasonable listener to the conclusion that the “territorial outlines” of the Palestinian state will be the 1967 lines with minor modifications.
Finally, the President brought up Jerusalem and Refugees.
Two wrenching and emotional issues remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians.
I think that much too much may be read into this statement. It is far too easy for Israelis to assume that the President is talking about some sort of division of Jerusalem that would be biased in favor of the Palestinians and about the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel proper. Clearly, neither is explicitly addressed in this speech. In fact, the President could just as easily mean that Israel, while controlling virtually all of Jerusalem, will have to accommodate Palestinian access to holy sites and that some sort of restitution will have to be paid to refugees. What this statement clearly does not do is grant East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as their capital. This is beyond any doubt highly upsetting to the Palestinian side.
Having concluded the portion of the speech dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the President went back to address the region as a whole.
Those words must guide our response to the change that is transforming the Middle East and North Africa — words which tell us that repression will fail, that tyrants will fall, and that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights. It will not be easy. There is no straight line to progress, and hardship always accompanies a season of hope. But the United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves. Now, we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.
How were these words interpreted in the capital cities of the Arab League nations? How about in Israel? Just look at these words for moment, imagining that you are part of the Israeli government and you have just been told that the United States is supportive of a Palestinian state along these lines and that you are being an impediment to its creation. The President of the United States closes his speech with the words, “Now, we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights.” Might you wonder if the President is explicitly stating that he and his administration are “squarely on the side” of the Palestinians. I think it might be easy to do and why there has been a substantial amount of concern voiced about this speech. I do not think that is what the President meant, but it is what he said in exactly that context.
Had President Obama stopped the speech earlier, at the point that I noted above, I think that it would have been seen as a substantially pro-Israel speech that could well have advanced the peace process in the long run. This speech, as it ended up, upset both the Arab nations and the Israelis with the Palestinians being perhaps even more upset than the Israelis and little being accomplished on the ground.
I am looking forward to hearing from the President on Sunday and Prime Minister Netanyahu on Monday. I expect President Obama to clarify many of the concerns that I expressed above when he speaks at AIPAC on Sunday morning.