A Few Things That Needed to Be Talked about during Obama’s Visit
Obama’s visit to Israel was important but it probably suffer from too much media manipulation and too many platitudes. This is a time when Israel will be at the center of news stories around the world. And as tired as the world is of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there will be increased attention to the issue. For that reason alone it is a good time to influence the agenda and improve the quality of discourse that surrounds key issues in the Middle East conflict. There are three topics that deserve attention and could help move the resolution process forward by improving clarity and accuracy.
1.The first issue that could use some attention is the exaggerated tense relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. This is based simply on the notion that Obama is not sufficiently supportive of Israel. I grant you that Obama talks about Israel and the Middle East with greater nuance and understanding of what it will really take to solve problems but this does not detract from his support for Israel. He recognizes that Israel is essentially a mirror of the United States and, of course, the importance of security issues for Israel. Those who question Obama simply have to look at the record.
It took tremendous courage for Obama to confront the Arab League in Cairo in 2009 and unabashedly declare US support for Israel. Obama told them our support for Israel was steadfast. Expressing some well-placed defensible criticism of Israel (e.g. with respect to the West Bank) should be viewed as part of our support for Israel and its future state; it is certainly no sign of weakness.
2.A second misnomer is that Israel is not interested in peace, and amongst the Palestinians there is no one to talk to. Granted, Netanyahu is a stern negotiator who is not going to jeopardize Israel or give up much on his own watch. But as the saying goes, “there is a new sheriff in town” in the form of a reconstituted government that has moved, albeit slightly, to the center. The peace process is not easy and it never has been so I don’t expect it to change much. Still, Netanyahu has made more than a few conciliatory statements. He has come around to the recognition of a possible state for the Palestinians – at least he’s on the public record – and is capable of advancing the peace process.
The statement that there is nobody to talk to on the Palestinian side is also a common refrain that has the effect of shutting down the process and becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Abbas is respected enough and although he is not a powerful charismatic leader he is recognized as the legitimate leader who can make decisions in the name of his people. Abbas does have the challenge of doing something about Hamas and finding a way for future unity, but that seems to be a topic for the far future. Abbas must manage Hamas because most Israelis recognize that the only thing that followed their exit from Gaza was rockets. Israelis rightly claim that there is no evidence that conciliatory behavior on their part is reciprocated. Both sides are to blame for lethargic peace process.
3.The issue of the settlements has to be discussed more specifically and thoroughly. Israel suffers international condemnation and all the unpleasant epithets that go with it because of the settlements. There have been periods of time during settlement freezes when peace talks were supposed to flourish. But that rarely happens. This is because the role of the settlements is exaggerated. Even freezes on development cannot draw attention to realistic solutions. And both sides are equally to blame for perpetuating the conflict by constant references to the settlements. And undue focus on the settlements is part of this sentiment around the world that the Middle East can be pacified if only the Israelis and Palestinians would solve their problems. The Arab spring has brought the problems of the Middle East into sharp relief all of which have little to do with Israel and Palestine.
In the end, it is the quality of discussion and analysis that will make the difference in the peace process. Obama’s visit will help fortify relationships between the US and Israel as well as the Palestinian Authority. Obama should recommit to pressuring Iran and that will pacify the Israelis. But real progress requires more effortful deliberation designed to sharpen preferences and ameliorate differences.