Analysis: Obama scores unexpected successes on Middle East trip


U.S. President Barack Obama flew out of Israel in a duststorm on Friday, leaving behind a trail of symbolic gestures and fine oratory that should help preserve the status quo at a time of regional upheaval.

In an unexpected diplomatic flourish, he also facilitated a surprise telephone call between the prime ministers of Israel and Turkey, putting two U.S. allies firmly on track to revive a once close relationship that had become badly frayed.

Obama set such low expectations for the three-day trip that he can easily proclaim it is mission accomplished, having wooed skeptical Israelis, eased their fears over Iran and shown Palestinians that he had not forgotten their aspirations.

True, many Palestinians remained disillusioned, feeling that Obama had buckled to Israeli pressure and backtracked from his previous demands for a halt to Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank on land they want for a future state.

But after a bruising first term of failed Middle East diplomacy, Obama's prime concern seems to be that the situation does not get any worse, while keeping alive slender hopes that a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is still possible.

“This visit marks a resumption of American attention to the conflict, which is very important after two years of utter absence from the scene,” said Ghassan al-Khatib, an academic and a former Palestinian government spokesman.

“It probably won't lead to any new negotiations, which in any case would be meaningless given the huge gulf between the two sides. But it might bring some accountability to the Israelis.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared highly satisfied by the public show of joviality displayed by Obama during their meetings, dispelling the frosty scowls and sniping that marked encounters over the previous four years.

“The atmosphere was much better than in all their meetings before,” said a senior Israeli official. “He gave the impression that he really wanted to start afresh,” he said of Obama.

IRAN CONNECTIONS

Obama has already spent more time talking to Netanyahu than to any other world leader, according to the White House, and the pair put several more hours on the clock through this week.

Iran topped their initial agenda, aides said, with Obama seeking to build mutual trust and convince Israel that he was serious when he said he would not let Iran get nuclear weapons.

As a joint news conference on Wednesday, Netanyahu repeated that Israel had a right to defend its own national interests, but added that he was “absolutely convinced” Obama meant what he said – a strong statement seen as significant by some analysts.

“Now I think there is almost complete understanding between Israel and the United States on the Iranian issue,” said Amotz Asa-El, fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

“Specifically, they are waiting to see if the June election in Iran ignites some kind of social upheaval, a prospect that both Washington and Jerusalem obviously prefer,” he added, referring to a mid-year presidential poll.

Israel and Western powers believe Iran is looking to prepare a nuclear arsenal – something Tehran denies, while defending its right to enrich uranium for civil uses. Netanyahu has set a “red line” across Iran's progress on enrichment, which he has said could be crossed in the spring or summer – hinting at unilateral military action unless the Islamic republic backs down.

Giora Eiland, a retired general and former Israeli national security adviser, said the prospect of such an attack was receding: “I think that the option still exists,” he said, “But that every day that passes lowers its chances of success.”

Reflecting Israel's isolation in a largely hostile region, Obama engineered a call between Netanyahu and his Turkish counterpart on Friday, enabling the two U.S. allies to overcome a diplomatic crisis sparked by the deaths of nine Turks in 2010 during an Israeli commando raid off the Gaza Strip.

The move to normalize relations with a NATO member state that was one of its few Muslim friends in the region could help coordination to contain spillover from the Syrian civil war.

“Given what we see in the Middle East, we see a situation in which our relations with Turkey can be very, very important for the future, regarding what happens with Syria, but not just what happens with Syria,” said a source in Netanyahu's office.

PALESTINIAN STALEMATE

Yet if the tensions with Turkey unexpectedly eased, Obama's visit did little to raise hopes that the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict was any nearer resolution.

Going over the heads of Israeli leaders, who have questioned whether they have a viable negotiating partner on the other side of the separation barrier that twists through the West Bank, Obama appealed directly to ordinary citizens to push for change.

In a powerful speech to appreciative students, the U.S. president warned on Thursday that the Jewish state risked growing international isolation without a peace accord.

However, he did not bring any proposals on how to resume negotiations, which broke down in 2010, and he backed away from a previous demand for Israel to end settlement building, simply calling the construction an impediment to peace.

He promised that his new secretary of state, John Kerry, would dedicate much time and energy to the problem, but many Israelis saw his comments as a sign Washington would distance itself from a diplomatic quagmire familiar to his predecessors.

“The era when the USA pushed Israel and the Palestinians into a political process is gone,” said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv-based think tank.

“In the absence of American vision and strategy, considering Obama's priorities and with the present positions of Israel and the Palestinians, the USA is basically saying: 'You call us. We won't call you',” he added.

Although Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed Obama's speech, some of his political allies were more damning.

“Obama's visit provides no clear way forward for a serious solution to the conflict,” said Wasel Abu Yousef of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. “It seems the U.S. is not interested in solving the conflict, but rather managing it.”

Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Noah Browning; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Echo chambers 5771


On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. The coincidence was not intended to be commemorative or symbolic. I had houseguests from the Old Country, good friends who had never been to Israel before, and this is how they chose to spend their last afternoon in the Jewish state.     

The first exhibit in Yad Vashem’s historical museum offers a crash course in the history of European anti-Semitism. It is made clear that the Nazi brand of Jew-hatred was racial in nature, meaning that even conversion to Christianity did not cleanse the Jew of his genetic toxicity. Still, the visitor is given to understand that the long tradition of Christian anti-Semitism enabled or predisposed many Europeans to collaborate, actively or passively, with the Holocaust. A quote on the wall from the German Jewish political satirist Kurt Tucholsky encapsulates the message:  “A country is not just what it does … it is also what it tolerates.” 

There were, of course, some Europeans who saved and harbored Jews in the Holocaust. These people risked their own lives because they knew in their hearts that Jews were human, too, that we were their brothers and sisters. Yad Vashem gives great honor to these heroes, long known in Jewish parlance as Righteous Gentiles. All the same, Jews may be forgiven if we are a bit skittish, if we feel we can’t completely trust any of the Christian countries, not really, certainly not the Europeans. And yet, many Jews so desperately want Christians to love them that they embrace any of them who profess such love, including demagogic Tea Partyers or mega-pastors who joyfully predict Armageddon. In today’s perilous, topsy-turvy world, such folks are construable to some Jews as Righteous Gentiles.

You go to Yad Vashem on 9/11 and you enter an echo chamber of catastrophe. You are deafeningly reminded that there’s nothing so terrible it can’t happen. On 9/11, 10 years after, Yad Vashem slams you against its cruel concrete walls and compels you to analogize. Given today’s headlines — could the worst not happen again?

You see the demonic caricatures of Jews from the Middle Ages and Nazi Germany, and suddenly a tape plays in the mind’s eye: all those terrible cartoons from today’s Arab media that appear prominently, as evidence of clear and present danger, on Jewish advocacy Web sites. You’re not one for scare tactics, and wary, perhaps, of organizations and politicians who thrive on them. Nor do you justify the automatic, facile equation of anti-Israel rhetoric and anti-Semitism, which such cartoons easily encourage. But you are deeply unnerved nonetheless. How can you not be?

I watched the newsreel footage of Kristallnacht, the hysterical mobs, the fiery collapse of stately German synagogues, and could not fail to think of the World Trade Center, toppled by Muslim terrorists a decade ago — and of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, attacked by an angry mob as Egyptian police stood idly by, less than 48 hours before my visit to Yad Vashem. What struck my American friends on 9/11 at Yad Vashem was the omnipresence of Israeli soldiers, scores of them. They were not there to guard the premises, but as fellow visitors, on special guided tours. The Israel Defense Forces routinely arranges for its soldiers to tour the museum and learn about the Shoah, to better understand the tragic history of the Jewish people and internalize the solemn Israeli determination to never be caught defenseless again. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 66th United Nations General Assembly.  Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters

Now let’s talk Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lately escalated his verbal attacks, claiming that Israel has killed “hundreds of thousands” of Palestinians while exploiting the Holocaust for political purposes. “The Israeli people are only resorting back to the issue of genocide in history,” he told Fareed Zakaria on CNN.  “And using that genocide, they are always acting as if they are the victims all the time. We said, for that, go ask Germany to pay its dues, and they have. … But neither Turkey nor the Muslims in the region have such a problem. They have never exerted such cruelty on Israel. But Israel is very cruel in that regard. It shows no mercy.”

Retorted Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman — also no slouch in the braggadocio department — at a festive pre-Rosh Hashanah gathering of his right-wing Knesset party, Yisrael Beiteinu: “If you ask what we can do PR-wise, I’d buy each and every media outlet and let Erdogan speak all day and all night. Every time he speaks on TV, he brings more support for the State of Israel.” 

As it happened, my wife and I went to Istanbul earlier in the summer — yes, we had thought twice, but went anyway — for a long and pleasant weekend. We marveled at the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and strolled the back streets of the Sultanahmet quarter, where the wooden quasi-Victorian houses reminded us of San Francisco. And, of course, we visited the Topkapi Palace, as every tourist must. The opulent home of Ottoman sultans and their harems is now a museum testifying to the former grandeur of an empire that ruled the region — the Land of Israel included — for hundreds of years. Indeed, a trip to the Topkapi helps one decipher Erdogan’s chauvinistic bluster, and maybe also take him more seriously.

One wing of the Topkapi contains some unusual trophies of empire — Muslim religious relics brought to Istanbul from Arab lands. Along with hairs from the beard of the Prophet Muhammad encased in jewel-crusted reliquaries, these sacred treasures include: the sword of David, rod of Moses, turban of Joseph, and — would you believe — the saucepan of Abraham.  Yes, our Jewish pantheon also figures in the Quran, but can anyone seriously think these artifacts are genuine? And yet, in the Land of Israel in our own day, the traditional West Bank burial sites of Joseph and Abraham have been flash points of Jewish-Muslim violence. They have their stories, we have ours, each echoing the others.

Now the Palestinians have gone to the lofty chambers of the United Nations, demanding a state of their own. That same week, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a Christian conservative who would be president, declared his indignation, at a Manhattan media event hosted by right-wing Jewish supporters, regarding the unilateral action of Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO. Reading from a prepared text, Perry added, for good measure: “We’re equally indignant of the Obama administration and their Middle East policy of appeasement that has encouraged such an ominous act of bad faith. Simply put, we would not be here today at this very precipice of such a dangerous move if the Obama policy in the Middle East wasn’t naive and arrogant, misguided and dangerous.”

Yes, well, except that Obama, the very next day, delivered a remarkable speech at the United Nations that was so supportive of Israel that Lieberman gushed he would “sign on this speech with both hands.” From where I sit in Jerusalem, the dangerous precipice of a misguided metaphor is Perry’s use of the word “appeasement,” which, alas, is bandied about all too often in Israel-advocacy discourse. Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who handed the Sudetenland to the Nazis at Munich in 1938, sullied the word once and for all. It cannot be used, certainly not in a Jewish context, without summoning the specter of the Shoah. But the Palestinians are not Nazis, and the analogy, be it ever so seductive, is unwise, to say the least. 

No less unsettling, for all its eloquence and passion, was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the U.N. General Assembly. It may be true, as he insisted, that the United Nations is often a theater of the absurd, but he scored no points in the court of gentile opinion by invoking the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s poignant counsel that “even in the darkest place, the light of a single candle can be seen far and wide.” Netanyahu, as he put it, “came here to speak the truth. The truth is that Israel wants peace. The truth is that I want peace.”

President Barack Obama addresses the 66th United Nations General Assembly.  Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters

Fine, but how to bring it about? Many Jews wring their hands in despair, as they heed Netanyahu’s message to the United Nations: “The Jewish State of Israel will always protect the rights of all its minorities, including the more than 1 million Arab citizens of Israel. I wish I could say the same thing about a future Palestinian state, for as Palestinian officials made clear the other day — in fact, I think they made it right here in New York — they said the Palestinian state won’t allow any Jews in it. They’ll be Jew-free — Judenrein. That’s ethnic cleansing. There are laws today in Ramallah that make the selling of land to Jews punishable by death. That’s racism. And you know which laws this evokes.”

Judenrein. We do know what unspeakable horror this word evokes. Indeed, it stops conversation. And here, dear friends and fellow Zionists, is the bottom line of my autumnal rumination. To suggest that our fixation on the Holocaust — emotionally, rhetorically, strategically and otherwise — may be counterproductive at this critical moment in Israel’s history is not to be an apologist for Erdogan, or a “useful idiot” aiding and abetting the delegitimizers of Jewish sovereignty and Israeli power.

For if it all comes down to staving off the next Holocaust, and the Palestinians are complicit in a grand Muslim design to eradicate Israel, then it becomes impossible to be “pro-Israel” and also supportive of the Palestinian desire for independence. Such a conclusion is demoralizing, indeed, as it consigns us to a perpetual reliance on force, and the continuing subjugation, in the name of self-protection, of our Palestinian neighbors. So here’s a reasonable question to ponder on Yom Kippur: Is this something that Israel, the state of the Jewish People, can tolerate indefinitely?

Stuart Schoffman is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation.