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Obama: Tough Love for Tel Aviv?

Obama: Tough Love for Tel Aviv?


by Steve Weissman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

It might have been only a straw in the wind, but The New York Times reported last week that, in his first 100 days, Barack Obama is planning to deliver a major foreign policy speech from an Islamic capital, most likely Cairo. As a sometime speechwriter, I pity the poor scribbler who will have to put those words together.

Forget the vitriol from right-wing evangelicals, who can hardly wait to lambaste Barack Hussein Obama for pandering to Islam and turning away from their apocalyptic crusade against a quarter of the world's people. Forget, as well, the muttering of conspiracy-mongers, left and right, who will read into the speech far more than Obama will intend. Hopefully, he will not wear a necktie with Islamic green, Israeli blue and white, or Hindu red and yellow.

The real obstacle is more obvious: What will Obama say about bringing peace to the Middle East? If he fails to say something significant on the issue, his silence will overwhelm whatever else he does say. So, it stands to reason that Obama and his advisers would not have suggested the speech if they did not want to say something about how they hope to end the long-standing conflict.

Nor can Obama simply repackage his last major speech on the issue, the talk he gave in June to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington. He spoke the day after he clinched his primary victory over Hillary Clinton, and watching on CSPAN, I thought he came across very presidential. If he felt at all like Daniel in the lion's den, given the vicious rumor campaign to Jewish voters that Hillary's people had directed against him, he never once showed it.

In its wording and delivery, Obama's speech was absolutely brilliant. But, for any Israeli or Palestinian who truly wanted peace in the troubled land they share, or any American who wanted a hint of even-handed justice, the speech was a real letdown.

Talk about pandering, Obama told his pro-Israeli audience everything they wanted to hear - and then some. Giving a sweeping view of Iraq, Iran and the Holy Lands, he presented every problem from the point of view of Israel's security, to which he gave an ironclad guarantee. He barely mentioned the Palestinians at all, and when he did, it was only to lecture them on what they would have to do to achieve any hope of a two-state solution. And he pledged that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided."

His statement on Jerusalem was, of course, far more extreme than the position taken by either the Bush administration or the Israeli government. So, it came as no surprise when his campaign rushed to retract the pledge, calling it "poor phrasing" and leaving the question of Jerusalem's final status to the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

One can, I suppose, forgive Obama for saying what he thought he had to say to get elected, though polls suggest that the vast majority of American Jews who voted for him wanted a peacemaker and social reformer, not a hard-line war hawk. But, no matter. The larger truth is that he cannot possibly repeat the one-sided approach of his AIPAC speech in any Muslim capital, not without creating a major international incident.

So, if he goes ahead with the speech, what will he offer to push ahead the process of peace in the Middle East?

My best guess is that he will follow the lead of two foreign policy elders who have advised him throughout the campaign and since - Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisers to the first President Bush and President Jimmy Carter. The two men offered their advice publicly in the November 21 Washington Post in an op-ed piece they called "Middle East Priorities for January 21."

Warning that a loss of hope in the region could lead to increased violence, they saw the resolution of the Palestinian issue as a way to remove a "deep sense of injustice" that is "genuine and pervasive." Resolving the issue, they argued "would liberate Arab governments to support U.S. leadership in dealing with regional problems, as they did before the Iraq invasion. It would dissipate much of the appeal of Hezbollah and Hamas, dependent as it is on the Palestinian's plight. It would change the region's psychological climate, putting Iran back on the defensive and putting a stop to its swagger."

As the two men argued their case, the new element would be for Obama to announce American backing for four basic elements of peace. The first, and most important, would be "1967 borders, with minor, reciprocal and agreed-upon modifications." The other three elements would be "compensation in lieu of the right of return for Palestinian refugees; Jerusalem as real home to two capitals; and a nonmilitarized Palestinian state." Scowcroft and Brzezinski also suggested deploying NATO troops to serve as peacekeepers and to train the "nonmilitarized" Palestinian troops.

I can quibble with the four points, as will Israelis and Palestinians. But what a wonderful step ahead it would be for the new president of the United States to put himself solidly behind a serious effort for peace.

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