October 15, 2019

Obama’s dilemma — What went wrong and what can be fixed

Say what you will about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House last month, there is no question that things did not go exactly as planned.

If you believe that President Barack Obama is Israel’s staunchest friend, trying his best to save it from unsustainable status quo and from the wrath of September’s proposed vote for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, you must admit that he did not expect to see a defiant Bibi receive a hero’s welcome in Israel after spelling out Israel’s final red lines. Such entrenchment does not make Israel’s position palatable to the Europeans.

Alternatively, if you believe that Obama cares more about appeasing the Arab street than about the fate of Israel, you must admit that he did not expect Bibi’s defiance to receive such enthusiastic approval by the two houses of Congress in Washington, D.C. Such response does not make the Arab position palatable to the American people.

I don’t know about you, but when the president of the world’s most powerful nation is taken aback by the turns of events, my nerves become somewhat jittery. Presidents are supposed to anticipate anything that might occur; their teams of experts, scholars and advisers are there to foresee reactions, prevent surprises and, most important, understand forces, undercurrents and public sentiments. When these experts miscalculate things, I immediately ask myself: Wait, is it just a passing miscalculation or indicative of the prism through which they see the world?

The latter would worry me and, if that’s the case in this instance, should worry anyone who is concerned with the prospect of peace in the Middle East. So, what exactly went wrong?

I spent last week reading everything analysts said and wrote about Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu, from The Huffington Post to Fox News, and the only theory that made sense to me was the following:

First, Obama’s highest priority is to renew the peace process, regardless of current assessments of its success or failure, apparently believing that the process in itself will create new momentum to overcome all obstacles to peace.

Second, Obama sees Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as willing but weak and Bibi as strong but unwilling, which explains why he did not demand some Arab concessions as a prerequisite to negotiations.

Third, and this is where he is both right and wrong, Obama assumed that Netanyahu can be pressured to make concessions if perceived by mainstream Israel society as squandering an opportunity to achieve a lasting peace.

This assumption is correct when it comes to borders, Jerusalem and Jewish settlements but not when it comes to the other two issues on Netanyahu’s list of red lines: the return of refugees and recognition of Israel’s legitimacy.

This last point deserves our attention, because it leads to countless misconceptions by politicians and analysts; why would anyone insist on hypothetical linguistic nuances of legitimacy when the physical existence of a war-stricken nation is at stake?

True, Israeli society is peace-driven, even peace-obsessed; I do not know of any culture where the word “peace” appears more frequently in folk songs, children books, the arts, theaters and TV debates. As a result, no politician who dares erode Israel’s hope for peace can survive a day in office.

Yet, at the same time, Israelis are realistic, and they are currently in possession of new and highly sophisticated antennae for reading their neighbors’ intentions toward coexistence.

Put together, Israelis are ready to give up 10 times more than what people say they should for a lasting peace and, at the same time, not ready to give up even one-tenth of what people say they should for anything less than a lasting peace. They have seen the bloody consequences of a quasi-peace, and they understand perfectly well what such consequences would bring in the new age of rockets, missiles and shifting regimes.

This simple truth seems to have escaped the prisms of Western media and many American analysts. Take Thomas L. Friedman, for example. In his article “Lessons From Tahrir Square” (The New York Times, May 24, 2011), Friedman calls for Palestinians to “announce that every Friday from today forward will be ‘Peace Day,’ and have thousands of West Bank Palestinians march nonviolently to Jerusalem” with a sign saying: “Two states for two peoples.”

“Trust me,” says Friedman “it would stimulate a real peace debate within Israel.”

Friedman has spent decades in the Middle East and has many friends in Israel and the West Bank. His “iron law of the Israeli-Arab peace” is accurate and compelling: “Whichever party has the Israeli silent majority on its side wins.” It is surprising, therefore, that he proposes a move that, first, cannot materialize and, second, would not have any effect on the Israeli silent majority. Here is why:

No Palestinian has ever uttered the words “two states for two peoples” in public. Some have learned to say “two-state solution” when Western journalists are around or when pollsters show up in town, but you can Google the Internet until dawn and you will not find the sentence “two states for two peoples” used by any Palestinian leader, spokesperson, journalist or TV commentator, not to mention teachers, poets and mosque preachers. The idea that Jews are a “people” is so alien to the Palestinian mindset that it has been banned from public discourse together with other taboos, such as “Jewish history” and “an end to the conflict.”

Israeli journalists and TV anchors make a big fuss about this omission from Palestinian discourse; I am surprised that Friedman has not noticed it and that he gives his readers the impression that the phrase “two states for two peoples” is taken from an ancient Palestinian nursery rhyme. Anyone who listened to Hanan Ashrawi last week on C-SPAN would realize that it would take more than a New York Times article to elicit a sound resembling “Jewish people” from Palestinian lips.

Now comes the second problem: convincing the Israeli silent majority that the words “two states for two peoples,” even if spoken, are taken seriously by their speakers. Having been burned by Oslo and seasoned from years of the duplicity of Yasser Arafat and Abu Mazen, mainstream Israelis would no doubt seek some evidence that those words have been internalized by their future peace partners. At the very least, Israelis would ask Palestinian leaders to state the “two peoples” refrain out loud, so they would not escape shopkeepers in Ramallah and refugee camps in Kalandia and Gaza. Most likely they would also demand to see at least one teacher on Palestinian TV telling his class what these words means, i.e., that there was and still is such a thing as a “Jewish people,” that the Palestinian people has accepted the Jewish people’s right to a state of its own and that it is Israel, not Germany, that is designated to be that state.

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.

While some observers regard this level of recognition to be unattainable and, therefore, an unreasonable demand by Israel, the Israeli silent majority regards it to be an essential, if not the only, litmus test for Arabs’ intentions toward coexistence, without which no peace agreement would be sustainable. One can retract words said in speeches, interviews or written agreements, but not words said in schools while one’s children are listening.

This brings us back to Obama and what he can do to hasten this process of mutual recognition. Surely Obama cannot dictate to Palestinian teachers what they should teach in Ramallah, but he could make it clear to the Palestinian leadership that their dream of achieving statehood cannot materialize before internalizing the idea that their neighbors, too, deserve such statehood, both morally and historically.

In my last column, published in these pages just before Obama spoke, I expressed hope that he would echo in his speech to the Arab world what he said to his Jewish audience on Yom HaAtzmaut: “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.”

Unfortunately, the magic words “historic homeland” did not appear in Obama’s speech of May 19. Israelis know that as long as Obama refrains from stating these magic words for fear of offending the Arab street, they have a thousand times more reasons to fear that same street, and hence to question the wisdom of every concession. Conversely, they also know that when Obama pronounces these magic words, it will be a sign of Arabs’ readiness to invest in education for peace, because education for peace has only one channel: historical legitimization.

Thus, Obama is right that Netanyahu can be pressured to concessions by Israel’s mainstream voters, but to get that would require a bold and unwavering statement from the president of the United States: “Two states for two peoples, equally legitimate and equally indigenous.”