Commentary Magazine


The Enduring Effect of Cairo

On the same day President Obama made his pitch in Cairo, seeking a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said the U.S. remained “deeply hated” in the region and “beautiful and sweet” words would not change that. Khamenei told a huge crowd at the mausoleum of his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomenei, that action was needed, not words. It appears as though the Iranian leadership is immunized to the charms of Obama in a way that our commentators and reporters are not.

So let me venture a guess: over time — and not much time — the beautiful and sweet words by Obama will be forgotten, and the only enduring thing to emerge will be what Obama said about Israel and the settlements. That will be what the Arab and Muslim world focuses on, and they will — along with the United Nations and European countries — insist that stopping settlements is the pre-requisite for peace in the Middle East. Obama made a good start, they will say, but what matters are the consequences following his address. And so all the pressure will be brought to bear on Israel.

This is farcical, given the history of the conflict between the Arab world and Israel. Israel has shown time and again that it is willing to give up land for peace. The problem has been that the Palestinian leadership has, for decades, not reconciled itself with the existence of Israel or shown a capacity, or even an interest, to contain terrorism. And other Arab nations use the Palestinians as pawns to stoke up resentment and focus attention away from their own failures. If Israel bowed to Obama’s demands tomorrow, does any serious observer believe that there would be a fundamental, or even a marginal, change in the views of Khamenei and others in the Iranian leadership; or Hamas; or Hezbollah; or Saudi Arabia?

But why not find out, Obama’s supporters and Israel’s critics might say. And how can Obama’s words, which were clearly well received by the Arab world, be harmful? Even if Obama’s speech leads to good feelings and nothing more, isn’t it still a good thing to diminish hostility toward America?

The response, I think, is four-fold. First, the issue of the settlements — and particularly what Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have in mind — is not well understood. Charles Krauthammer provides an excellent analysis of the matter here.

Second, Obama’s portrayal of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict and his effort to establish moral equivalence between the two distorts reality. Perpetrating false narratives is itself a problem and usually creates other problems down the road. The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold, Aristotle wrote. The results may not be quite that bad, but they will be bad enough.

Third, to insist that Israel do what Obama wants even before negotiations begin will have unintended consequences. It will reinforce Arab intransigence. Arab nations will (understandably, from their perspective) wait for America to force concessions from Israel on a range of issues rather than give up anything to win them. Good feelings mean very little unless they can be translated into tangible, concrete progress. In this case, the results of Obama’s speech will, in my estimation, take us further down the wrong path.

Fourth, if the diagnosis of a problem is wrong, the solution is bound to be so as well. In this instance, the supposition that the problem largely lies with Israel rather than the nature of various Arab nations and the failures of the Palestinian leadership means that our focus will be diverted from where it needs to be to issues that are wholly beside the point. Those who insist that Obama is applying pressure to both sides will discover soon enough that the pressure on the Palestinians will ease up and soon be forgotten; all the demands will be on Israel.

Watching the reaction to Obama’s speech, one can see again how comforting it is for American and Western commentators to embrace the myth that Israel is primarily responsible for the failure and suffering of the Palestinian people. It means that a large part of the solution to the problem lies with Israel, a nation over which we have some sway. But these people overlook the entire history of the conflict, the history of the Palestinians (to take just one example, the effort by the Palestinians to overthrow King Hussein and their subsequent expulsion from Jordan in the 1970s), and even the history of the last 15 years, where we have repeatedly seen the malevolence of Hamas and Fatah play itself out in pizzerias, shopping malls, bus stations, and places of worship; at nightclubs, ice cream parlors, school yards, and weddings. We need only look at what has happened in Gaza over the last few years to be reminded of how this story goes.

Reality doesn’t seem to matter, though; there is a “peace process” to be pursued and a template to be followed. But to embrace this approach is worse than mistaken; it is a prescription for more failure, more suffering, and more setbacks. Obama’s words yesterday set many hearts aflutter. But they will set in motion a series of events that will, I fear, lead to disappointment and, ultimately, to more violence and more despair.

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