Friday, June 05, 2009

Obama in Cairo

Oh, it has been a long time. But the summer is here, work is over for a while, and I'll be leaving soon to visit Israel. So the time has come to re-ignite the blog. For the 3 people who read this, welcome back!

This weekend I'm going to speak at Trinity for a few minutes about President Barack Obama's historic speech to the Muslim world which he delivered on June 4 in Cairo at Cairo University. I've watched the video of the speech, and I've looked briefly at the transcript (including the official Arabic translation posted on the web site).

Let me say right off the bat: in principle, I've got no problem with the Obama administration's new approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It's more an issue of unfortunate timing. It is fairly clear that the new Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu is going to use every diplomatic trick in the book to forestall the new forceful call for suspending all settlement activity in the West Bank. It is also fairly clear that the Hamas government in Gaza is not going to renounce violent resistance to the Israeli occupation. Between the two, I'd bet the Israelis would be the first to capitulate, but I hardly imagine that it will come to pass. Then what?

It is somewhat misleading to use the term "settlement" when talking about Israeli living arrangements in the West Bank. I think the English term "settlement" conjures up the notion of smaller-than-towns kind of arrangements. Let's set aside for the moment the massive suburban bedroom communities around Jerusalem like Ma'ale Adumim (pop. 33,000 in 2005). Let's talk instead about the city of Ariel (pop. 16,600 in 2007). Here is Google Earth's view of Ariel:

Look at the size of this monstro-city! Every one of those houses, schools, and shopping centers make up this so-called "settlement." There is even a controversial college in its midst claiming 9500 students enrolled! This city (for all intents and purposes) is 25 miles east of Tel Aviv, more than 11 miles beyond the internationally recognized border of Israel, deep in the heart of the West Bank (at this point the WB is only 32 miles wide). It has a reported population growth rate of more than 3% annually.

Who's kidding who? In the mid-1980s the Israeli urban planner and geopgrapher Meron Benvenisti warned that the clock on reversing Israeli settlements may already be past midnight. The opportunity to stop the settlement insanity passed a long time ago. Even if a deal could be reached on adjusting Israel's borders to accommodate the bedroom communities of Jerusalem (in exchange for some empty Israeli land somewhere in the southern West Bank-Israel border area), what in the world is to be done with a place like Ariel?

So let's say for a moment that all settlement activity is frozen (not that this Netanyahu government will easily agree to such a thing), and let's be even more charitable to Israeli expansionism and say that Ma'ale Adumim and the Etzion bloc of Israeli settlements south of Jerusalem, and all the post-1967 Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem are allowed to remain part of Israel in some fantastical settlement. What do you do with Ariel and it's 16,600 inhabitants?

For those like me who have argued for decades against Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territory, the truth is sad but true: all talk of a two-state solution at this late date is well-nigh impossible, even if

a) there was an accommodating Israeli government; and
b) there was an accommodating Palestinian governing body

But there are neither of these two things. The current Israeli government won't even commit to a two-state solution, and the self-immolating Palestinian factions (weak Fatah in Ramallah; weak Hamas in Gaza City -- currently shooting at each other) can't swallow accepting all the settlement blocs and Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

So now along comes Barack Obama. We Americans know intimately his rhetorical skills; we also know his analytical Spock-like detachment. Obama is also good at telling an audience what it wants to hear. I never forget -- not for a moment -- that he is an ex-academic, that he is famed for "listening to all sides" and then trying to find a middle ground. And that was the essence of his Cairo speech. Obama has surrounded himself with famed "pro-Israel" advocates like Rahm Emanuel, Joe Biden, and yes, even Hilary Clinton. These people may be more constitutionally sympathetic to the Jewish state, but they are not knee-jerk advocates of muscular Israel as was the previous American administration. Obama also was a close social friend of then-University of Chicago professor Rashid Khalidi, who has a very different set of sympathies and analyses of the conflict than the regnant theories of the Bush administration. Whatever Obama knows of this conflict comes from discussions, book-reading and briefings suggested by the likes of Emanuel/Biden/Clinton on the one hand, and Khalidi on the other. Accordingly, Obama has internalized the current "cutting-edge" analytical narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict -- that there are two victimized peoples. One is the victim of antisemitism culminating in the Holocaust; the other is the victim of Israeli occupation. Each deserves a home, but ironically (some would say perversely) one people's successful homeland was created at the expense of the other. As Obama put it, there are "two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive."

In a nutshell, this is the analytical approach of the "new" Israeli historian Benny Morris, who entitled his grand history of the conflict Righteous Victims. This approach doesn't so much produce a symmetrical narrative, where Jewish victimhood is equated with Palestinian victimhood, as it produces a nuanced view as to why the Zionists succeeded and how their success engendered Arab hostility and stifled the national aspirations of the Palestinians. This was the over-arching theme of Obama's treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict in Cairo. It is simultaneously sympathetic to Israel and sympathetic to Palestine. For the President, the problems of the last 61 years are not the result exclusively of Arab rejectionism, but also the result of Israeli behavior. Obama thus rhetorically endorsed the "new" history of the conflict. If one speaks of Arab or Palestinian intransigence, in the same breath one speaks of Israeli intransigence. This is a monumental shift in the underlying American approach to the conflict, a position which has been brewing for years in the State Department and in academic circles.

Does this new "canonical" meta-narrative to the history of the conflict have an impact on American policy? The answer is and will be yes. The new American insistence on the suspension of all Israeli settlement activity directly flows from this meta-narrative. On the other hand, Obama's insistence that Hamas and Fatah renounce violent resistance is a recurring trope in Obama's approach to Palestine. In his first visit to Israel and the West Bank as a US Senator back in January 2006, Obama urged college students in Ramallah to follow Martin Luther King Jr.'s path of non-violence in resisting Israeli occupation. He said the same thing in Cairo:

"Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That's not how moral authority is claimed; that's how it is surrendered."

President Obama thus directly addressed the Palestinian people and signaled a new American approach to Hamas. Abandon violence, and all will be forgiven. This is an understandable American policy shift from the previous administration which boycotted Hamas as a terrorist group. Only a unified Palestinian leadership can prove to be a worthy negotiating partner. As parties in a negotiation go, a reluctant Israel is one thing, but a Palestinian leadership utterly divided makes for a thoroughly untenable negotiating partner. Watch for the alleviation of the Fatah-Hamas rift to be the main American diplomatic effort for Palestine, even as it simultaneously pressures Israel to halt settlements. Unfortunately for Israel, America can apply pressure more concertedly on a constituted Israel government than it can apply on fractious Hamas and Fatah.

How will this all play domestically in the United States? That question I will take up in another blog.

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