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Obama in Israel: Hope over Experience?

I was traveling last week, so have not had an opportunity until now to comment on President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem and his visit to Israel in general. I only now read the speech and, like many of Obama’s speeches, it is a rhetorical masterpiece. It is also a tacit repudiation of his entire first term, which began, as far as Middle East policy was concerned, with his speech at Cairo University on June 4, 2009.

This was a conscious attempt by Obama to hit the “reset button” on U.S. relations with the Muslim world, which he thought had been harmed by George W. Bush’s hawkish ways. Obama went so far to ingratiate himself with the Arabs that he even seemed to equate Jewish suffering in the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering “in pursuit of a homeland”–as if the Palestinians had been the victims of genocide too. Obama pointedly did not visit Israel on that swing through the Middle East and subsequently he put unprecedented pressure on the government of Israel to halt all construction in the West Bank–not as the ending point of talks with the Palestinians but as a precondition for such talks.

As we now know, this gambit backfired spectacularly. There has been no progress at all in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since 2009–in fact no meaningful negotiations at all because Obama set the bar so high for holding talks that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, has felt compelled to make even more sweeping demands that Prime Minister Netanyahu could not accept, certainly not at the start of negotiations. The Cairo speech did not even work at the level of public relations because it set Arab expectations for the U.S. so high that they could never be fulfilled. The result is that, as the Pew survey notes, Obama’s approval rating in the Muslim world has fallen from 34 percent in 2009 to just 15 percent today.

Without explicitly repudiating his Cairo address, Obama took a decidedly different tack in Jerusalem. He devoted the first part of the speech to expressing sympathy and admiration for Israel and making clear that he recognizes that the Jewish right to a state is not simply rooted in Holocaust guilt; it is an age-old bond between a people and their land. It is hard to imagine any American president doing a better job of paying tribute to the state of Israel and its people.

He did not, of course, just leave it there. And there the problem begins.

Toward the end of his speech he pivoted from praising Israelis to exhorting them to make peace with Palestinians. “The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice must also be recognized,” he said to the cheers and applause of his Israeli audience. One wonders if he would have gotten similar cheers and applause in the West Bank or Gaza Strip if he had addressed a large audience of students–most of them Hamas or Fatah members–and told them that Israel’s right too must be recognized.

Obama recognizes that persistent Palestinian unwillingness to accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is a problem, but he imagines that somehow it can be wished away in another round of negotiations. “Now, Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with anyone who’s dedicated to its destruction,” he said. “But while I know you have had differences with the Palestinian Authority, I genuinely believe that you do have a true partner in President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad.”

Actually, there is plenty of cause to doubt that Abbas and Fayyad are true partners for peace–not necessarily because their intentions are bad but simply because they do not have the power to deliver peace. If even a veteran revolutionary like Yasir Arafat, who was an icon to his own people, could not in the end make painful concessions such as giving up the “right of return,” what chance is there that two unpopular leaders with much less legitimacy can do so? And even if by some miracle Abbas and Fayyad could be convinced to sign a final status agreement, how would they possibly bring along the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip?

Obama’s only reference to Hamas in the entire speech–the only one!–was this one sentence: “Israel has a right to expect Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.” True, Israel has a right to expect this–but what strategy does Obama offer for making Hamas renounce its entire ideology and history and recognize Israel’s right to exist?

On this issue he was silent–as he was silent on offering any actual blueprint for advancing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Such tedious details are presumably left to Secretary of State John Kerry to work out. That has been a pattern with Obama that even his supporters recognize–he is much better at soaring rhetoric than at nuts-and-bolts implementation.

The Jerusalem speech was undoubtedly a great improvement over the Cairo speech–Obama now at least seems to recognize that he has a better chance of winning concessions from Israel if he embraces rather than berates the Jewish state. But at heart the Jerusalem speech suffers from the same problem as the Cairo one of raising unreasonable expectations. Given that the Jewish-Palestinian conflict has been going on since before the birth of Israel, it is perhaps time for American policymakers to give up the dream that they will somehow solve this intractable situation in the next presidential term. Yet Obama is the latest American leader to imagine that he can work miracles in the Holy Land. In this regard, his Jerusalem address was yet another triumph of hope over experience.



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