Middle East Matters: Obama's speech on Middle East was almost perfect

Published: Monday, May 23 2011 7:12 a.m. MDT

I’m not sure that there was a need to mention Israelis and Palestinians in the talk, but if he was going to do it, he should have reflected more on the lessons of the failed Oslo process.

Jews who vilify President Obama for his positions on Israel have it wrong as well. I do not believe for a second that he intends to sell out Israel or compromise its security. It’s just that Jews have been spoiled by 16 years of Clinton and Bush II, both of whom had a special place in their hearts for Israel.

Like Bush I, President Obama does not get misty-eyed when he talks about the country. In all likelihood, he regards it as an important ally that must be defended, but it does not tug at his heart strings. Given the president’s background, there’s no reason that it should.

To be sure, there were plenty of positive statements in the speech in support of Israel. The president noted that “antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression” under the region’s authoritarian rulers; expressed his uneasiness with the recent Hamas-Fatah pact; called on Palestinians not to take unilateral steps towards statehood and condemned Hamas’s terrorism.

Unfortunately, all of these positives are outweighed in many circles by his call for the borders of Israel and “Palestine” to be based on the pre-Six-Day War borders of 1967. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the president to his face, this proposal is simply unworkable.

Mr. President, the problem is not the plan.

As Israel has shown with Egypt and Jordan, the details of peace agreements can be worked out when there is trust on both sides. The problem here is with who is sitting on the Palestinian side. For years Bill Clinton’s naÏve advisors told him that if he just came up with the right formula and invited the terrorist Yasser Arafat to the White House enough times, there would be peace in our time.

More sensible people knew from the beginning that as long as a terrorist was sitting on the other side of the table, there would never be peace. The compromises that Israel is being asked to make are almost all permanent in nature (e.g., land), while the Palestinians are only asked to make statements and promises that can be retracted at will. Right now the Palestinian representatives are a weak, illegitimate president whose term expired more than two years ago and the terrorist group Hamas. Would the U.S. negotiate away land to them if they were our neighbors?

President Obama did well to observe that “everyone knows … a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition and peace.”

The problem is that no one, certainly not their Palestinian counterparts, can guarantee the Israelis that their state will be left in peace after the ink is dry.

In a remarkable and little-noted statement, the president called for a “non-militarized” Palestinian state. (No Arab leader wants a militarized Palestinian state, but it was refreshing to hear this come from the mouth of a U.S. president.) The reason for this statement is precisely the reason that negotiations to establish a Palestinian state are useless right now.

During a briefing given to a senior State Department official and me (the note taker) by the Israeli Army’s Head of Research some years ago, the official remarked that he was profoundly troubled by what he was hearing, which seemed to suggest that murderous anti-Semitism was alive and well in the region.

The Israeli general asked him a very sobering question: If the Palestinians had the Israelis’ military capability and vice versa, what would happen? After a brief pause, the official said, “I guess there would be six million fewer Jews in the region.”

The president is only kidding himself if he believes that the answer has changed in the intervening years. Until it does, there is no point in talking peace, regardless of the plan.

Mark Paredes served as a U.S. diplomat in Israel and Mexico, blogs for the Jewish Journal, and will begin leading tours to Israel next year for Morris Murdock Travel. He can be reached at deverareligione@yahoo.com.

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