Commentary Magazine


Cat Got Their Tongues?

A number of good writers have already commented on “Obama and the Middle East,” a new essay by Hussein Agha and Rob Malley in the New York Review of Books.

So what does the article say?

Interestingly, the answer is “not much.” It says that life isn’t easy; that chances for peace aren’t great; that both Israelis and Palestinians have many grievances; that the U.S. failed, so far, in its attempts to reach an understanding. It also says a couple of more controversial things. For example, that Yasser Arafat deserves credit for the good things he did to advance the two state solution — Agha and Malley share a repulsive history as leaders of the the-failure-in-Camp-David-wasn’t-Arafat’s-fault camp.

The writers seemingly show some sympathy to Israeli settlers and suggest that the U.S. “recognize their views and concerns, consider their interests, and invite them to take part in discussions.” But this is a shameful trick. First, because it de-legitimizes the Israeli government, and essentially calls upon the international community to talk to Israeli political groups separately. Second, because it is only one more way for the authors to justify their insistence on talking to Hamas.

The piece is not very impressive because the more the authors stray from what happened and the more they delve into “what needs to be done now” – the less specific they become. Vagueness can be a sign of thoughtfulness, but it usually covers for a lack of new ideas.

Take a look:

The task, in other words, would not be to polish up answers to questions of borders, security, Jerusalem, or how to compensate refugees. That approach increasingly is becoming a sideshow, chiefly of interest to official negotiators. Nor would talk center on creating Palestinian institutions or extolling a two-state solution’s value in combating extremism or reshaping the region.

So what should we do?

There may be another way. Its starting point would be less of an immediate effort to achieve a two-state agreement or propose US ideas to that effect. Rather, it would be an attempt to transform the political atmosphere and reformulate the diplomatic process.

Transform to what? Again, there are no specifics, just aphorisms like “A new language would help; so too would a broader audience.” But what will we tell this “broader audience” (namely, Palestinian refugees, Hamas, settlers and the other groups the authors want to talk to)?

The most urgent task is to prepare the way for that day by countering the skepticism that has greeted and torpedoed every recent American idea, good or bad…

How? The great orator Obama will somehow better communicate with the alienated groups of the region, by telling them something the authors refuse to specify, from which a new plan, also un-specified, will emerge.

“The time is for a clean break, in words, style, and approach,” they write. We know that by time they mean “now,” or even more specifically, “next week” in Cairo. We know that by “clean break” they mean, “no more Bush.” We might also know what “style” means (Obama). But the two most important things – what new “words” and what new “approach” the authors would suggest – remain suspiciously vague. Either the proposals they have are so outrageous that even these two didn’t want to utter them out loud – or they have nothing productive to offer. Given Malley’s friendly past with Hamas and Agha’s time as an advisor to Arafat, and given the anti-Israel tenor of their previous work, I’ll leave it for you to decide.