29 July 2009

Maybe, Peace

Erev Tisha B'Av. Jerusalem. 5769.2009

Aluf Benn's article in this week's New York Times, "Why Won't Obama Talk to Israel?" raises some good points. If the President is willing to go to Cairo to address the Arab and Muslim world, doesn't Israel deserve a visit, too? It's an emotional appeal the reaches deep into the hearts of Israelis, and Benn points out well that for all the years of Clinton and Bush, Israelis felt that they received special treatment, which of course infuriated the Arab and Muslim world.

He wrote:

"First, in the 16 rosy years of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Israelis became spoiled by unfettered presidential attention. Memories of State Department “Arabists” leading American policy in the Middle East were erased. The White House coordinated its policy with Jerusalem, and stayed out of the way when Israel embarked on controversial military offensives in Lebanon and Gaza. This approach infuriated America’s Arab and European allies, which blamed Washington for one-sidedness — something they were willing to forgive of Bill Clinton but not of George W. Bush."

The President's attempts now are to set another tone, to prove to the Arab and Muslim world that he can be an honest broker, to attempt to balance the relationship in order to gain the trust of Palestinian leadership and the Arab and Muslim world in order to move peace prospects to a new level.

I think from the President's perspective, this is a transparent negotiating tool that is wise to use right now because gaining the trust of as many parties as possible for a regional peace is essential; and, yes, soon the President should visit Israel. But consider the other potential pitfalls of a "too-soon" visit to Jerusalem.

1. The relationship between Netanyahu and Obama doesn't seem like a very warm or trusting one. Calling David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel "self-hating Jews" as Netanyahu allegedly did, only fans the flames of a tense relationship. The President of the United States can't very well visit a foreign country only to be attacked days later by his host. As in internal Jewish fight, this is totally embarrassing for us. I'd guess that there is more to work out in their relationship before that visit can be made.

2. Settler outposts. Obama has made much of stopping construction of settler outposts, settler expansions, and building in East Jerusalem. Yesterday's papers reported that the police finally dismantled one such illegal outpost near Hebron yesterday, only to have the settler movement proudly declare it will turn around and rebuild it today. On the other hand, today's paper reports, that as the result of George Mitchell's visit, Netanyahu has agreed to freeze construction of 900 homes in East Jerusalem. The situation remains fluid and somewhat unstable and the President cannot and should not risk his credibility by arriving here without progress already on its way. That's what diplomats are for! And maybe is an indication that Obama's tough stance is beginning to get results. Jews do not need to live in A-Tur and Sheikh Jarra.

3. Palestinian leadership and infrastructural changes are really beginning to evolve. That seems to be the feeling here in Jerusalem and that should continue as well. Most agree that the biggest problem with Camp David in 2000 was that Arafat walked away from peace; the prevailing wisdom is that the Olmert government at Annapolis offered even more but he himself lacked the credibility to deliver to the Israeli public and the Palestinians were caught up in their own internal war between Fatah and Hamas, ongoing to this day. As Olmert asked recently in the Washington Post, "it would be worth exploring" why the Palestinians refused his offer. But what is finally happening is that roadblocks are being lifted, the Palestinian economy is attempting to come back, and good faith efforts are being made. Ironically, Netanyahu's idea of building peace "from the ground up," very much in line with Obama's community organizing philosophy, may be working! See Ari Shavit's take on it in today's Haaretz.

On the other hand, an Obama visit could have the potential to be galvanizing. Among those in the peace camp, they are lonely. They could use their leader (Obama that is) to visit Israel and make a speech, "work his magic" as people here say, and inspire people to move in the right direction. It is, after all, what he does so well. Last night when I came home from the Tayelet or Promenade overlooking Jerusalem where we heard the reading of the Book of Lamentations commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC and 70 AD, I opened up the Times on line to see that the President went to North Carolina and then Virginia to sell his health care plan. It's important to remember to remind Israelis that President Obama does have a country to run--we have enormous problems in America, coming home to roost after decades of neglect--not unlike the Arab-Israeli conflict. And just as the President has hit the campaign trail again to sell Americans on the sacrifices we need to make to make our country better, so too do Israeli leaders need to do the same. Yet, how ironic that the man Aluf Benn is calling upon is not his own Prime Minister but the President of the United States!

An Obama speech in Jerusalem would be tremendous. No doubt about it. And at the right time it should happen. But my sense is that the President is waiting for Israelis and Palestinians to demonstrate that they can get a handle on things before the President wades in directly. That is as it should be.

The Tayelet is in a border neighborhood of Talpiyot, next to Palestinian neighborhoods. As a public park which overlooks the entire city of Jerusalem, it is used by all its residents. So while hundreds of Jews gathered in circles small and large to read Lamentations, to remember historical tragedies while living as free people in their own land (thank God!) under their own rule (that's crucial to remember when commemorating Tisha B'Av), dozens of Palestinians shared the hill and barbecued their dinner. For those fasting, the smell of freshly cooked meat wasn't easy. But as the poetry of Lamentations was read, describing a destroyed Temple where sacrifices were no longer burned while the twin offerings of a Palestinian family's meal and Jewish prayers of longing and remembrance were uttered, there was something powerfully messianic about the moment--primarily due to the fact that it all went down peacefully.

As crazy as things are here, I have a sense that the exhaustion from all the killing these last several decades may have a chance to create an opening for another way of doing things--like guarded coexistence, and then, maybe, peace.

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