November 18, 2018

Speeches vs. reality

As I write these lines on May 17, the Middle East is caught between events and speeches. The events are the Arab spring, which actually started in December 2010, when a man burned himself to death in Tunisia, sparking a chain of pro-democracy uprisings all over the region; the skirmishes on the Israeli borders with Lebanon and Syria; the killing of Osama bin Laden; and the expected U.N. General Assembly motion in September, recognizing a Palestinian state. The speeches are the one President Barack Obama is delivering on May 19 (the day this newspaper appears in print) on the Middle East and North Africa, and three speeches by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: the one he gave in the Knesset on May 16, the one he will give on May 23 before the U.S. Congress, and, finally, the one he will deliver at AIPAC.

I must confess: I love speeches, but not for the reasons you might suspect. Rarely am I moved by a great speech, and I guess that only once in a millennium there is a speech that leaves you speechless. Shakespeare put one in the mouth of Anthony, at the funeral of Caesar; Thucydides reported the speech of Pericles during the Peloponnesian War; and Abraham Lincoln delivered his groundbreaking Gettysburg Address. (By the way, the keynote speaker at the latter event was the great orator Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours. Do you know anything about his speech?).

No, the reason I’m interested in speeches is that I have written some for certain Israeli leaders, only to hear my brainchildren butchered upon deliverance. Took me some time to realize that my input was only one out of many, that others wrote and suggested ideas and arguments as well, and finally, like in a food processor, the outcome was a mushy stuff that left some happy, others annoyed and most people unimpressed. Since then, my hobby is to listen to speeches and try to decipher which opposing camps the speaker is trying to appease, where the quotations come from and from where the “original” ideas were stolen.

Speeches, in short, are irrelevant. It’s events and actions that matter. Obama will surely applaud the Arab spring and will say all the right words about the need for regimes in the Middle East to open up and walk hand in hand with their peoples toward a better future (you see, that’s how they write speeches). The region, however, has had enough words. Just read the Arab States Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme, written not by patronizing Westerners but by Arab scholars: “About 30 percent of the youth in the Arab States region is unemployed. Considering that more than 50 percent of the population in Arab countries is under the age of 24, 51 million new jobs are needed by 2020 in order to avoid an increase in the unemployment rate.” Will anyone shoulder this awesome task?

Obama will presumably speak about the need for Israel to stop settlements, return to the 1967 borders with land swaps and declare Jerusalem as a capital of both Israel and Palestine. That will make the Palestinians happy. On the other hand, he will demand that the Palestinians should not declare a state unilaterally and that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state and refrain from terror. That will make Netanyahu smile.

Netanyahu will also speak about the need to compromise but will condition it on Palestinian moves first. I bet that at least at the AIPAC event, he will say, to a standing ovation,  that “Jerusalem will always be united.” 

Reality, however, will take its own course, regardless of oratory. The rage of the Arab youth in the Middle East will grow as they become frustrated with the lack of progress after breaking the barrier of fear. The incidents on the Israeli borders with Syria and Lebanon should warn us against a worse scenario, where the Arab spring energies are diverted against Israel. Furthermore, regardless of speeches, the Palestinians will quite likely declare a state in September, with its capital in East Jerusalem, and will declare Israeli settlements illegal. A vast majority of U.N. members will support it, leaving the United States to decide where it stands. Israeli hardliners in the Likkud Party are already threatening that in that case, Israel should annex parts of the West Bank, which will only make things more difficult.

The only comical pause in this grim picture of the distance between words and reality was given by the Syrian regime, which denounced the so-called Israeli brutality in dealing with the protesters on the Golan. The Assad henchmen, slaughtering their own people while the world is silent, also have their touch with words.

As someone who for years has preached that Israel should pull out of most of the West Bank and support the founding of a viable Palestinian state, I have mixed feelings these days. What I have hoped for is probably going to happen in September, but instead of Israel being a full, active partner in the process, it might be dragged screaming and yelling into accepting the outcome.

I will listen to the speeches, all right. I will then pray that Netanyahu should not be confused by the applause his masterly crafted words have generated. When coming back to Israel, he should look reality in the eye and move. Here is an idea: The Arab Peace Initiative is still on the table. Instead of saying “no,” let’s try a “yes, but” approach. There are still three months left for action.

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem. From 1992 to 1996 he served as the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments. He blogs exclusively at