Way back in the 1970s, New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy and its leaders appealed to the Republican president, Gerald Ford, for help. His answer was a curt, No. From this the New York Daily News originated one of the most memorable headlines in newspaper history:
“Ford to City: Drop Dead”
That’s something like what Barack Obama did (speech transcript) on this Middle East trip. He embraced Israel. He even embraced its leader who he loathes, Bibi Netanyahu. He spoke words of sympathy and understanding to his Israeli audiences. He offered them support. He offered encouragement. He threw in a few exhortations like a football coach, telling them they could do better (“look at the world through their eyes” he urged Israelis to do on behalf of Palestinians). It was pretty much one of those Rodney King, “why can’t we all get along” speeches.
He even pulled out the “tikun olam” trump card. Whenever someone wants to establish their Jewish social justice bona fides they tout their commitment to tikun olam and that, presto change-o, turns them into a morally conscientious Jew (or Jewish ally). I got news for ya, Barack. Ya don’t walk the talk. That phrase means something and you don’t get to invoke it without earning the right to. You’ve got a Nobel Peace Prize? Ya didn’t earn that either. It may turn out to be the most embarrassing Nobel Prize moment in history.
Here was another Kumbaya moment:
“Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do,” Mr. Obama said, in tones reminiscent of his own political campaigns at home. “You must create the change that you want to see.”
Really. So a people who has rained terror down on the heads of its neighbors for decades, which has shown no real impetus for compromise or peace–the young people of such a country are supposed to go out and demand of their leaders that they do something that almost no one in the country wants them to do?
Obama may have a better sense of where Americans stand on major issues, but he’s got a piss-poor sense of where Israelis stand. No Israeli (except those in the peace camp) wants to take risks. Even those young people cheering his speech–as soon as you sat them down and asked them which specific risk they’d be willing to take for peace, would begin to hem and haw. Pretty soon you’d see they wouldn’t take any risk for peace. But they love the idea of peace. It sounds so romantic and charming and hopeful. Doing something for it–now that’s a different story.
In this passage Obama rings Zionist chimes of freedom:
“Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea: the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own.”
But he omits the ineluctable corollary: that Palestinians deserve to be free in a land of their own. Not only do they deserve it. They must have it, now. That’s what was missing. Any sense of urgency. It was as if he was delivering a college lecture on Zionism or a rabbinical sermon. Not as if he was a politician about to make change. The Middle East doesn’t need any more speeches. It needs action. Something Obama has no intention of delivering.
His speech, cheered by the youthful Jewish multitudes, read like the liberal Zionist primer it was. Two states for two peoples. You must compromise. You need peace. Things will be so much brighter. Blah-blah-blah. Mouthing platitudes. It didn’t even have Macbeth’s sound and fury, but it did signify nothing.
For the Palestinians, he offered nothing. Nothing about ending settlements. Hardly anything about a Palestinian state except as a laudatory goal in the vague future. He even had the chutzpah to say this to the Palestinians in Palestine:
“I’ve stood in Sderot, and met with children who simply want to grow up free from fear.”
Not a single word, not just about the Palestinian children who don’t even have bomb shelters to protect them, but the generations of Palestinians who’ve died for something Israel already has: a nation. Can you imagine anything more tone-deaf for a Palestinian audience? More insulting?
The accompanying photo of a Palestinian activist arrested by Israeli Occupation forces while protesting Obama’s visit is incredibly ironic. He’s wearing an “I Have a Dream” t-shirt, hearkening back to Martin Luther King’s 1963 address. The same address that eventually led to a black man in the White House. The same black man who’d just betrayed the Palestinian cause. In the meanwhile, the Palestinians are the ones keeping true to the dream offered by King, while Obama hobnobs with the oppressors and empathizes with their moral conundrums and sensitivities.
I say beware of Greeks bearing gifts and American presidents bearing nothing. The truth is that the Palestinians have nothing that Obama needs; while the Israelis, thanks to the Israel lobby and a captive Congress, have much that Obama needs. It’s really cold, hard political calculation.
So while the president we voted for cared about principle at least as much as political expediency, the man who leads us now has shed any semblance of principle. Especially regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. There will be no peace agreement, not even a campaign for one.
The best Obama thinks he can do is stop Israel from starting a war with Iran. If he can stop that, Obama thinks he’s done about as much as he can. Biting off a peace deal is more than he thinks he can chew. And he’s right. This is not Jimmy Carter, not even Jim Baker. Obama has neither the stomach nor the spine for such things. He’s not willing to sit leaders from two nations in a room and tell them they’re not leaving till they hammer out a deal.
For all these reasons, Obama has just bequeathed more wars to the Middle East. Many more dead, mostly on the Palestinian side, but many on the Israeli as well. And all because he simply has no vision, no will, and no ambition to solve it.
Let’s put it even more clearly: he’s told the Palestinians essentially to drop dead. They can expect nothing from him. I would say he sold them down the river, but I don’t think the Palestinians see him as betraying them. He never promised them anything to begin with.
The NY Times notes that Abbas may be prepared to drop his previous condition for resuming talks, of a cessation of Israeli settlements. This, for the liberal Zionist crowd at the Times and in the White House, is supposed to be a hopeful sign. It isn’t. Even if Abbas drops such insistence and resumes talking it won’t lead anywhere. There’s nothing to talk about. The political trajectory of the new Israeli government is clear. It’s going to build settlements. It’s going to add settlers to the Occupied Territory (now over 560,000 and growing by the day). It’s going to do everything in its power to render Palestinians and Palestine superfluous. So what is there to talk about?
Even if Abbas disagrees with me and moves forward and lays out a settlement (which is highly unlikely), it won’t be one any self-respecting Palestinian will accept. This predicament reminds me more and more of the bitter peace that France forced on the defeated German nation after World War I. In suing for peace, the Germans had to give up so much the state had little left to support itself economically or politically. For that reason, German governments in the 1920s were so weak and ineffectual it led to chaos and the eventual rise of the Nazis.
A bitter, resentful Palestinian nation on whom peace terms are forced by a superior power will not create a stable environment. It will be a breeding ground for hate and violence. So please, Pres. Obama and Punch Sulzberger and your journalistic minions, don’t confuse acquiescence with agreement. Palestinians may acquiesce in a deal, but you will not have their acceptance of it unless it is truly just and responds to their interests as they perceive them. That means settlements dismantled and a return to 1967 borders, a shared Jerusalem and return of those refugees to Israel or Palestine, who wish to do so. Short of this there’s simply no deal.