Barack Obama demonstrated once again that he knows how to speak. In the process, he may have regained some of the Jewish money and votes that he lost by his earlier tilts toward Palestinians, and demanding an end to construction in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Israeli commentators called it the warmest speech in the United Nations about Israel by any American president.
While Obama''s Cairo speech of 2009 and later comments contributed to the ill-advised Palestinian efforts to avoid negotiations and gain a state via the United Nations, those moves by the Palestinians also owe something to the hyperbole and other cancerous features that are inherent in Arab politics. Obama should have known better when he contributed to the Palestinian push toward nowhere, but Americans are not well known for selected experienced individuals as their presidents.
Commentators emphasize Jewish money and votes as the reasons for the President''s shift. However, Obama has impressed me as one of the brightest--if not the brightest--chief executive in a long time, perhaps since Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was a political scientist, whose classic article on public administration was written while he was a professor at Wesleyan, somewhat earlier than when I was a student there. No matter how brilliant and learned, Wilson''s mistakes as president are also legendery. And like Obama''s, they were in the field of foreign policy.
Obama has done better than Wilson in backtracking from his errors, although presidential ego limits the extent to which he can admit doing anything like that. A Palestinian state created entirely by the United Nations could not function alongside an Israel that had not been a partner to its creation. Obama now has said that in the most public of forums, even though it may have cost him a cool reception in a United Nations dominated by Muslim and other Third World politicians.
Actually, the issue of Palestine is more nuanced than expressed by some Israelis and perhaps a higher proportion of Diaspora Jews who seem not to have learned anything since 1967 or 1948. The Abbas-Fayyad government, with all its errors in avoiding negotiations and hoping for a Deux ex machina state, has--with the help of the United States, Jordan, and Israel--created more security for both Palestinians and Israelis than their predecessors. This reflects American money and prodding, Jordanian training, and Israeli cooperation.
There remain good reasons for Israeli suspicions of intentions and the stability of Palestinian cooperation. Palestinian extremists have not gone away, but Palestinian security personnel have achieved a level of cooperation with Israeli counterparts that appears to be greater than anything in the past. A recent New York Times article links this cooperation with Benyamin Netanyahu''s urging of Republican Members of Congress to go along with President Obama''s continued provision of financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/21/world/middleeast/house-gop-finds-a-growing-bond-with-netanyahu.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Netanyahu&st=cse
Israel''s politics also have their share of subtleties, and it would be folly to predict an easy process or certain outcome of negotiations, assuming they actually begin. The Israeli and international left speaks easily about withdrawing settlements as if that could be assured with clever drafting of an agreement. However, there is substantial opposition to significant withdrawals that extends into the secular center of the Israeli population. Continued Palestinian incitement and violence, and the response to the withdrawal from Gaza play at least as much of a role in that reluctance as any religious arguments about the Land of Israel. Palestinian assertions that Jews never had a historic place in Jerusalem or the Temple Mount also worry Jews inclined to distrust anyone who expresses such crude distortions of reality.
American politics remain as difficult to predict as the question of a Palestinian state.
Our recent trip with several stops in the United States exposed me to family, friends, and others who would sober anyone making a casual prediction about the next election. Notable was time spent in a very upscale independent living facility where a cousin has lived for several years. It was our third visit to a guest apartment there, and we have come to know several of the residents. The population includes WASPs, Catholics, Jews, and East Asians, all from the upper parts of the American society. Some residents may not have voted for any Democrat since John Breckinridge. Individuals speak with the skill of people who earned a great deal of money in their working years. However, attitudes about health care, taxes, and government intervention are hardly favorable to the administration, and are unusual for one who circulates more often in Europe and Israel than in the United States.
Even if doubting Jews return to their Democratic loyalties as a result of yesterday''s speech, it may not be enough to overcome dismal numbers and widespread concern about the economy. Against a campaigner who speaks like Obama, however, the Republicans have not yet assured themselves entry to the Oval Office. They will have to do better than pretty and articulate candidates with nutty ideas about religion and economics.