Obama's surprising moment of clarity

At last, American policy will be capable of seeing matters from a more realistic perspective.

US President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, October 1, 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, October 1, 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Palestinian-Israeli dispute is the primary obstacle to stability in the Middle East. This has been the universal conventional wisdom since the early ‘60s. It was diligently propagated by Arab leaders of all stripes who blamed any and all Middle East conflict on Israel’s alleged refusal to compromise. This wisdom was confirmed by every US president since Lyndon B. Johnson via public pronouncement or clear implication. That’s a lot of years and a long line of presidents – nine, by my reckoning.
But last Wednesday, something changed.
Last Wednesday, in his September 24 speech to the UN General Assembly, US President Barack Obama stated: “The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict [Palestinian-Israeli] is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long, it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home.”
This statement was a radical change in the official US party line. For while Obama went on to emphasize the moral imperative of resolving the Israel-Palestinian dispute, his statement suggests strongly that Middle East observers everywhere have been mugged by reality – that real-time developments have made it impossible to continue to see Israel as responsible for the bad things happening in this region. The president’s declaration was also mind-boggling because he identified the reality which necessitated the sea change in perception, and this reality is very recent – only a few years old. Until the dissolution of Libya, Syria and Iraq, the Middle East could reasonably have been viewed through the now-jettisoned illusion of Israel being to blame for all its problems.
But at least now – at last – American policy will be capable of seeing matters from a more realistic perspective. And while the president pledged to “stand up for the principle” that two states (i.e., establishment of a Palestinian state) will make the world more just and safe, this is not the same as believing that a resolution of the dispute is necessary for the peace of the Middle East and world. This new perspective could also result in a dramatic difference in the constellation of forces and pressures applied to Israel regarding the Palestinian dispute. It allows us to be more creative in our approach to a resolution of the conflict and to anticipate greater American receptivity.
One can argue that the new presidential pronouncement will be effective at best only until the next president takes office, that we have learned many times that one president’s commitment may be another’s point of departure. A good example is the Bush letter which Ariel Sharon at the time considered so important but which President Obama did not consider binding. Nevertheless, history shows that formal presidential statements generate a cumulative effect into the future.
What I find truly fascinating and frightening is how core policy hypotheses develop into self-evident truths, which then drive and direct the diplomacy and military actions of the global power and all its fellow travelers for generations.
Where did this axiom come from and how was it sustained and promulgated for five decades so that only seismic, catastrophic developments could cause critical re-evaluation? I don’t know the answer but I do know that it is important for us to get at it.
Israel is not immune against domination by universally accepted conceptions.
We have seen how our own self-evident truths shape core policies only to be proven invalid after much damage, injury and pain. Until Yom Kippur 41 years ago, we “knew” that Egypt would never attack us if it believed it could not win the war.
Until just nine years ago, we “knew” that the Arab population in the West Bank rose to 2.5 million people after we handed civil authority over to the Palestinian Authority. This time, it was the Americans who demolished our myth when an American demographic study proved those numbers to be a million over the mark.
We have other self-evident truths which seem to have been disproven but have not been vanquished and still serve as premises for policies advocated by some of our leaders. “Land for peace” assumes that the Palestinian dispute can be resolved through territorial compromise. Yet the history of pre-1967, of our negotiations, and the actual mission statements of the interlocutors – both Fatah and Hamas – seem to negate this. Another previously widely accepted truth is that an agreement with the Palestinians will be implemented and effectively enforced.
The events in Iraq, Syria and Libya cited by President Obama seem to call this assumption into stark question – but not in his mind and not in the minds of some of our nostalgic leaders of the old Left.
Today, we live in a period where there are fewer of these universal assumptions than at any period I can recall.
The great challenge is to analyze our reality and plan strategy without convenient conceptional constructs. It is very difficult to analyze and plan without such constructs. In fact, we cannot think without basic conceptions such as cause and effect, statistical predictability, etc. But the conceptions missing today are the higher level, more sophisticated ones that spare us much work in analyzing complex constellations of facts. The danger is that we will not plan policy but rather delay and avoid the hard work necessary. While absence of a thought-out policy nevertheless results in some sort of policy, it is rarely effective or beneficial.
The absence of constructs is a problem, but even more it is a great opportunity.
One can only hope that we do not miss this chance for original and creative thought.
The author is an attorney in Israel and the US, and is the founding president of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, which seeks to strengthen Israel as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish People.