I understand Barack Obama’s impatience with Israel. I see his logic whereby if only Israel would freeze, concede and withdraw, the conflict would end. I can imagine the appeal, for the first African-American US president – the first incumbent president to win a Nobel Peace Prize in decades, the first to pass such sweeping health-care legislation – to seek his next big win in the Middle East.
Just as Alexander the Great legendarily solved the problem of the Gordian knot by slicing it in half rather than untying it, Obama wants to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict by cutting through what the world has deemed to be the obstacle to Middle East peace: Israeli intransigence.
Alas, Obama is no Alexander.
So far, the more Obama pulls at this Gordian knot, the tighter it gets; the more Obama pressures Israel, the more the Palestinians raise their demands. Obama is failing – and flailing – because he is blind to history. He is ignoring the history of Israeli willingness to compromise.
In 1947, David Ben-Gurion accepted the UN’s partition plan; the Arab leaders did not. Thirty years later, Menachem Begin relinquished the entire Sinai Peninsula in return for Egypt’s promise of recognition and peace. And in 1993, Israel accepted the Oslo Accords, recognizing Yasser Arafat as a peace partner and arming his henchmen.
No one, no matter how charismatic, self-confident or powerful, will succeed in jump-starting the Middle East peace process without acknowledging Israel’s long-standing openness to compromise – and the series of betrayals it has nevertheless endured. The Oslo Accords degenerated into Arafat’s war of terrorism, which murdered more than 1,000 innocent people. The Gaza withdrawal of 2005 led to Hamas’s rise, and intensified the rain of Kassams pounding Sderot and other towns. This is not ancient history. This is not about who first had ties to Jerusalem centuries ago (which, of course, the Jews did). This is about a long-standing pattern of Palestinian violence and intransigence, manifested repeatedly.
ISRAEL ALSO remains justifiably haunted by the perversions of Jenin and Goldstone. Jenin is shorthand for two sobering lessons. In April 2002, when Israel finally counterattacked after hundreds of murdered civilians, Palestinians slaughtered 23 reservists in an ambush there because the IDF chose to go house to house rather than bomb. Not only did the international community fail to give Israel credit for displaying restraint, but within days the Palestinians accused it of committing mass murder in Jenin. Even after this lie was exposed, the taint of illegitimacy still lingered around the IDF.
Similarly, the Goldstone Report of 2009 offered a topsy-turvy account of the IDF’s actions during the Gaza operation in late 2008 and early 2009. The report ignored the years of patience Israel exhibited before responding and, among other outrages, downplayed how Hamas secreted terrorists and bombs among Gaza’s civilian population.
So yes, Israel does
seem intransigent, if you ignore Arafat’s war and Hamas’s rise, the Jenin slaughter, the Jenin and Goldstone libels. And Israel can
seem inconvenient if you accept the simplistic slur that it causes America’s Middle East headaches. But Osama bin Laden started planning his anti-American terrorism during Oslo’s heyday. The jihadists admit they hate America because it is too Christian and too secular – yes, that is a contradiction – meaning too Western and non-Islamic.
Unfortunately, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel’s supporters can repeat these facts again and again without convincing Obama, Israel’s critics or even many American Jews who condescendingly urge Obama to administer some “tough love” by treating a sovereign state like a recalcitrant teenager.
Therefore, it is imperative that Israelis accept the legitimacy of Palestinian claims to the land – oops, most Israelis already have.
And it is imperative that Israel negotiate with the Palestinians, demonstrating tremendous flexibility and openness – oops, that is what Ehud Olmert already did.
And it is imperative that Netanyahu declare his acceptance of a two-state solution – oops, he did that already.
And it is imperative that he accede to American demands of a construction freeze in the West Bank, while taking down checkpoints, empowering Palestinian security and helping the Palestinian economy thrive – oops, he did that too .
And it is imperative that Netanyahu endure the humiliation of being browbeaten by the secretary of state, the vice president and the president himself – oops, been there done that..
THIS IS what galls Israelis and the pro-Israeli community – including increasing numbers of American voters, according to the latest polls. Obama has harmed Israel by casting it as the obstacle to peace rather than the peace-seeker. This pernicious accusation feeds the Arabist and radical leftist Big Lie, which seeks to delegitimize the state itself. All Israeli peacekeeping gestures are ignored, as is Palestinian rejectionism. When Obama’s administration, to its credit, actually condemned Palestinian incitement as reflected in the honoring of terrorists by naming streets after them, most major media ignored the statement, because it muddied the simpler narrative of Israel the intransigent, the obstacle, the illegitimate.
Even though his and his country’s peacemaking gestures have been
ignored, Netanyahu should make one more move – Anwar Sadat style,
offering to go to Ramallah while inviting Mahmoud Abbas to the Knesset.
There, Netanyahu should say: “I’m willing to negotiate with no
preconditions, no preconceived outcomes. Here’s my phone number; the
ball is in your court.”
In response, understanding that he has made his point with Israel while
only hardening Palestinian hearts, Obama should lighten up. He should
denounce the delegitimization derby as a threat to peace. He should
acknowledge Israeli efforts at compromise and fears of violence
following concessions. He should continue pressing for peace talks if
he thinks they might succeed.
But he should understand that if he wants to convince Israelis to make
the difficult compromises peace will require, American reassurance and
acknowledgment of Israel’s disappointments will accomplish much more
than bullying. We need less Alexander-style hubris and more of the
centrist wisdom candidate Obama promised.
The writer is professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Institute Research Fellow. He is the author of
Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and
the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.