October 22, 2019

Words Matter — Obama’s Next Challenge

By the time this article is published on May 19, President Barack Obama will be putting the final touches on his policy speech on the Middle East, scheduled for the same day. Many see it as an important speech, for it could signal a dramatic shift in U.S. policy in the wake of the Arab uprisings, the demise of bin Laden and the resignation May 13 of George Mitchell. For Israel, though, the crucial test is whether Obama will take bold steps toward a lasting peace in the Middle East or merely express his displeasure with the now-stalled “peace process.”

Regardless of which side we blame for the current stalemate, be it Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for not launching a diplomatic initiative to test Palestinians’ readiness for peace, or Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, for rejecting direct negotiations in the hope for a better deal through the United Nations, one thing has become clear before our eyes: The Palestinian concept of a two-state solution has turned into something so fundamentally different from its Israeli counterpart that the very idea of a “peace process” is now an oxymoron — a process tormented by two conflicting visions of “peace.” One side sees the process as a road toward “ending all claims,” while the other sees it as an opportunity for reigniting unrealizable claims.

Nothing made this clash of vision more transparent than the Nakba marches and celebrations that took place May 15 in Gaza, Ramallah, Lebanon and Syria, all the way to Jerusalem and even Jaffa. If in previous years the overriding protest theme was “occupation, occupation and occupation!” this year it was entirely “return, return and return!” Those who have not noticed the change and still believe in the mantra, “They do not mean ‘physical return,’ they will settle for a spiritual surrogate of ‘return’ or some token humanitarian gesture,” were not listening to what the Palestinians are saying, loudly, boldly and uniformly throughout the protest demonstrations, or even to what their spokesmen are saying, over and over again, to the Western media: “return, return and return!”

I am not speaking here of Ismail Haniye, Hamas’ prime minister, who told 10,000 Muslim worshipers on the morning of May 15 to pray for an end to Israel. I am speaking of the PA encouraging Hamas demonstrations in the West Bank, as long as they call for the destruction of Israel and not for overthrowing the PA administration, and I am speaking of Fatah Central Committee member Nabil Shaath, who on May 12 said,  “We oppose any U.S. peace plan which wants us to waive one of our most basic rights, and that is the right of return for refugees.” Finally, I am referring to Abbas, who summarized the Nakba Day events as “a turning point in the Israeli-Arab conflict.”

One is naturally wondering whether Obama believes that this widening conceptual gap can be bridged through negotiations and whether he is aware of how adamant Israelis are vis-à-vis the unfeasibility of “the right of return” (this includes all leaders of the Israeli peace camp, even the most liberal editors of Haaretz). One also wonders, of course, what the president can do to give the “peace process” a semblance of common purpose, and how he can definitively tell the Muslim world where America stands on this key issue.

While most analysts fear the president will attempt to decriminalize Hamas and continue to pressure Israel on settlements and other nonissues, I am more optimistic. With the peace process in shambles and the two-state solution in danger of extinction, the president must boldly confront the obstacle of Arab rejectionism.

This is still possible. On May 9, for example, he surprised us with an unprecedented statement for Israel’s Independence Day. If in his Cairo speech of June 4, 2009, Obama’s rationale for Israel’s creation began with the Holocaust (“The aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied”), listen to what he said on May 9, 2011: “Sixty-three years ago, when Israel declared its independence, the dream of a state for the Jewish people in their historic homeland was finally realized.”

Is this merely a stylistic change of speech writing or a deeper understanding of Jewish history and the core issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict? Whatever the case, we must admit that the reference to “their historic homeland,” aside from being unprecedented from this administration, is also something that no Arab has ever accepted and that most Israelis view as the key to both “peace” and “peace process.”  For the process to move forward, the president’s commitment to this refrain must be clear not just to American Jewry but to the Arab audience as well, from Morocco to Bahrain.

Obama’s words matter, because it is only a strong and unambiguous American affirmation of Israel’s indigenous status in the Middle East that can awaken Palestinians to the realization that legitimacy is a two-way street. You cannot earn for yourself what you deny to your neighbor.

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (danielpearl.org), named after his son. He is a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.