Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

And, He's Left-handed (Part 2)

I was right. The last Prairie Pondering blog generated some heat. But after a little more than a week, I'm still in the kitchen.

The response to the concept that President Obama's Cairo speech offered a new approach to the pursuit of peace in the Middle East brought two general reactions. Readers either applauded my observations and shared my yearning for an end to the insanity of U.S. policy (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result) or they mocked my naiveté and proclaimed the impossibility of Israel's making peace with terrorists who refuse to acknowledge its right to exist.

Here's a couple of samples from the contrarians:

From my good friend, M, in Montreal (see the comments to the blog for her complete response):

Oy, oy, oy Sam. Well written and thoughtful as always, but I think you're putting too much faith into someone who is either genuinely naive (or personally doesn't really care) about Israel, and is only interested in pushing his own agenda without weighing the risks to the one country upon which he is trying to force his will.

BOTTOM LINE: until the Arabs of the Middle East (and the rest of the world) accept that Israel has the right to exist as an independent, democratic (small d ;-)), Jewish state there will never, ever be a hope for peace and stability in the Middle East. THAT is the clearest truth of all. Obama can give speeches and make proclamations until the next U.S. president replaces him, but the only change is that Israel's enemies now think they bear even less responsibility to seek peace or negotiate, and have the backing of the US president.

It saddens me, and in a way frightens me, that much of American Jewry seems willing to support a Middle East policy that offers no serious consequences to those that would seek Israel's destruction.
I love you, Sam, but I can't agree with you this time. Nor can I understand why anyone would think that Obama is a friend of Israel. He's not. His advisors are, for the most part, not. And because they're not, the security and continued existence of the Israel that I and many others love is now at greater risk than ever before.

!עַם יִשְׂרָאֵל חַי (Long live the nation of Israel!)

An anonymous poster also commented:

There is a two state solution and the other state is called Jordan. The only justification for the state of Israel is the G-d gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people. This was the reason Harry Truman used in l948 for ratification of the existence of the State of Israel. Israel's neighbors refuse to recognize the existence of the state of Israel, and one cannot make peace with someone who does not even recognize your right to exist.

And, finally, there's my close friend, Chanan, a Russian Israeli, who had prophetically warned me about the consequences of a U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and who believes that President Obama is a closet Muslim, has no concern for Israel and will abandon and destroy the Jewish State because he does not understand that the Arabs will never recognize Israel's right to exist.

You should know that I respond with some trepidation. What I fear most is the possibility that I will suffer the same fate, the same ridicule that befell German Jews who defended the National Socialists in the early 1930's. If my analysis of what is transpiring, and what needs to occur, is in error, the consequences for my people are horrific. And so I ask myself repeatedly, "am I listening for what I want to hear from the Obama Administration or am I listening to what it is saying?"

I am listening to what President Obama is saying and, significantly, words matter with this president. I heard him stand up before his audience in Cairo and proclaim that peace was not achievable without the Arab nations' recognition of Israel and it's right to exist. I heard him admonish his hosts that they cannot hope to achieve the stability of the two-state solution without renouncing terrorism, controlling terrorists and cease the fomenting of hatred against the Jewish State. In effect, he spoke M's "clearest truth". This president is not an idiot. Words matter. He was not relieving the Arab states of responsibility. He was imposing responsibility as a condition of cooperation from the United States.

There were a couple of developments this past week that increased my comfort with my analysis. Vice President Biden was interviewed on Meet the Press on Sunday. The concerns of M and the anonymous commenter were addressed head on. Here's the transcript from the conversation David Gregory had with Vice President Biden on the subject of Israel and President Obama's position (thanks to RealClearPolitics for posting the transcript):

MR. GREGORY: Let me return to a couple of foreign policy notes...


MR. GREGORY: our remaining moments. Israel. Is the president trying to distance himself from Israel in order to assuage the Arabs?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: Absolutely not. Look, here...

MR. GREGORY: If that's the case, then, why is this administration only making unconditional demands over settlements on Israel and on no other parties?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well, they are make--we are making demands. We're making demands both today...

MR. GREGORY: Unconditional demands.

VICE PRES. BIDEN: Look, look. The president of the United States, in his speech to the Islamic world and the Islamic communities, stood there and said--and it's a paraphrase, I don't know the exact quote--we are unconditionally tied to Israel. Israel's security is our security was in essence of what he said. So he made it clear we're not distancing ourself from Israel. What we say is that, look, what happened was all the parties signed onto a thing called the road map. It was the thing that everybody said that would bring, result in a two-state solution. The Israeli government signed onto that, the Palestinian Authority signed onto that, the Arab states blessed that. That's what we want to see happen. So we are moving all the parties as best we can toward keeping their part of the bargain.

MR. GREGORY: Yeah. But wait a minute, you were making an unconditional demand only on Israel and no other parties...

VICE PRES. BIDEN: No. No, we're not.

MR. GREGORY: ...over settlements. That's not the case?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: No, we're not. No, that's not the case. We are making...

MR. GREGORY: What unconditional demand has this president made on the Arabs?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: The unconditional demands we're making on the Palestinians that they have to provide security for Israel. They have to stop this, this, this, this baiting of their populations. They have to stop incitement. We've made it clear to the, to the Arab states, they have to do something more than just talk about normalizing relation with Israel.

MR. GREGORY: Is there moral equivalency in the fight between Israelis and Palestinians, in your view?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: No. No, there's not moral equivalency in...

MR. GREGORY: Did the president suggest there was in his speech?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: I don't believe the president did suggest that. What the, the president suggested is for the well-being of innocent Palestinians and Israelis, that what you need to do is you need a two-state solution along the lines that all the parties had heretofore agreed to, and we're going to use all of our diplomatic capability to move the parties toward actually implementing what they committed to.

Before you dismiss this as the unscripted musings of "Foot-in-Mouth" Biden (as some of my debate opponents have been doing this week), let me explain how things work. A lot of very intelligent, highly paid staffers at the White House, and the president himself, decide whether, where and with whom to put forth the Administration's positions on the Sunday news shows like Meet the Press. Anticipated subjects are reviewed. Answers are carefully crafted. Sometimes instructions are given not to make any statements contrary to the official position of the Administration. Sometimes, the interviewee is coached on how to address outstanding issues in order to make sure that a subject of controversy is covered in the manner POTUS wishes it to be covered. There is no way in Hell that the White House did not anticipate a question about the Administration's commitment to Israel after the Cairo speech. And, accordingly, there is no way in Hell that the Vice President's description of the "unconditional" demands being made on the Arabs was off the cuff rhetoric. He was delivering a message as instructed. Words matter.

The second event was Israeli's Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech in response to President Obama. For the first time, he acknowledged that, with conditions, he would accept the two-state solution he has long campaigned against. The conditions, appropriately, dealt with security issues. The conditions also dealt with the status of Jerusalem, not an insignificant obstacle. M, Chanan and others who challenged my views this week reminded me that, under Israeli jurisdiction since 1967, Jerusalem has been open to all faiths. Previously, while under Jordanian control, Jews were not allowed in the Old City. They fear a return to those exclusionary policies if the Israelis give up control and their concerns are understandable.

However, again, a fresh approach can bring about a compromise. President Obama welcomed Prime Minister Netanyahu's response as a good start. As with the need to control terrorists before there can be any hope of peace, the president recognizes that Jerusalem has to remain open to all faiths. He believes however, and I cannot imagine that he is wrong, that there are ways to assure such access even if the city is not under the exclusive control of the Israelis.

We have no choice but to try. Spare me the commentaries on the intolerance of Islam and the destruction of Jewish and Christian communities in Arab lands. I do not need to read more accounts of the subjugation of women in Arab communities or the seemingly barbaric imposition of Shariah law. I understand that these injustices have occurred and continue to occur. And, unfortunately from my point of view, it will be a long time, if ever, before those cultures change.

The tragedy would be to allow ourselves to be blinded by our abhorrence of such barbarism as we try to fashion peace with Israel. Our desire to establish peace and stability in the region is precisely for the purpose of allowing Israel to thrive as a democratic Jewish State without concern over the imposition of Islamic law in its territory. How Muslims treat one another in their own countries is besides the point as long as they recognize Israel's independence. As I noted last time, that is the starting block for the discussion imposed on the Islamic world by President Obama in Cairo.

Allow me a final comment on the anonymous commentator's observation about the Source of Israel's entitlement. My faith (philosophy, not religion) leads me to believe that God
did give Israel to the Jewish people. My multi-cultural awareness puts me on notice that my faith is not universally shared. I am not willing to trust resolution of the conflict to hoping that (paraphrasing Yasser Arafat of all people) my imaginary Friend is more powerful than their imaginary Friend. Rather, I prefer to believe that God left a few untied ribbons dangling when he presented the package of Israel to the Jewish people and, as with so many other grants of free will, He is leaving it up to us to figure out how to tie up the loose ends.
!עַם יִשְׂרָאֵל חַי

Saturday, June 6, 2009

And, He's Left-Handed

I know I am going to take some heat for some of what I am about to write. However, a theme in President Obama's speech in Cairo this week refuses to fade from consciousness and gives me the courage to proceed:

It is time to discuss in public what everyone acknowledges in private.

President Obama was referring to the inevitability of a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict, requiring Arab nations to accept Israel's right to exist as an independent Jewish State and requiring the Israelis and their supporters to accept the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian State. The president was stating the obvious. There can be no peace in the Middle East without such bilateral acceptances.

Unfortunately, until now, no would-be mediator has been successful in pursuing the obvious. By voting for change, we elected a president who is willing to shout to the world that the Emperor wears no clothes and to force all parties to the debate to move on to a level of negotiations that is not based on unrealistic underlying assumptions used as if they were legitimate bargaining chips. The Arabs cannot extract concessions from the Israelis by agreeing to recognize Israel. The Israelis cannot take credit for agreeing to an independent Palestine on their border. After President Obama's speech in Cairo, those entitlements became the starting blocks of the negotiations, not interim goals to be achieved. In effect, President Obama was telling the parties, if we cannot move on from those starting blocks, we can't move on. No starting blocks, no race.

What a difference an administration makes! The eight years that ended on January 20, 2009 were marked by public policies, or a lack thereof, that were first vetted with an eye towards the political implications. Politically untenable positions were generally discarded. Worse, the politics pursued were those of a right-wing ideology. The right-wing base that financially supported, and vociferously shored up, the last administration had effective veto power over any proposal that did not fit within their view of America.

Consider the debate over immigration policy. President Bush's rare practical position that recognized that we were not going to be able to return 11 million "illegal" residents from Mexico as a starting point of immigration reform was shouted down by the Far Right, accusing the president of promoting a general amnesty for Mexican scufflaws and their nursing children. The president's proposal to initiate immigration reforms was merely stating publicly what everyone acknowledged privately. Eleven million illegals were staying put. But W lacked the independence, credibility and leadership capability to dismiss his opposition.

Not so with the new president as he addressed the world. He signaled that from now on, there would be honest discussions exploring peace in the Middle East. Not "easy", "honest". He did so without clearing his remarks with other members of his political party. He proclaimed the obvious regardless of the political consequences he knew would follow from the response of the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC). He insisted that Hamas relinquish its policies of hatred and violence against Israel that the organization has so effectively utilized to maintain political control and distract its constituency from demanding a government that addresses basic societal needs.

The implications of such forthrightness are striking. I am not naive enough to think that political considerations are ignored in the Obama Administration. But the willingness to do the right thing in spite of anticipated political fallout, and the demonstration of faith that the American public has the maturity and intelligence to respond to an honest discussion of the challenges facing us, gives me much hope for the future of our country with President Obama at the helm.

Our new president personifies leadership, not gamesmanship. He relies on thoughtfulness and pragmatism, not demagoguery. He has taken some very tough positions.

Witness the shockwaves resulting from the paradigm shift in the American auto industry implemented by President Obama. There is a lot of short term collateral damage to working class families all across the country as a result of the Obama Administration's gameplan for "saving" General Motors. In fact, I am not sure I agree with everything that has been done. But, and it is an important "but", I am willing to be proven wrong because I have a sense that the Obama Administration is addressing a very difficult situation with the best of intentions and not as a means of furthering a political viewpoint.

Nothing comparable to The Patriot Act has been generated in response to the threats to our national security posed by imminent financial collapse. Public debate has not been muzzled. Government decision-making has been significantly more transparent than ever before.

We finally have a president who, faced with unprecedented challenges on every front, realizes he does not have the luxury of either time or multiple chances at success to allow himself to squander opportunities to find solutions. He will not engage in doublespeak; he will not ignore in public what "the deciders" acknowledge in private. The president's resulting popularity, even in these difficult times, shows just how hungry Americans are for such rare candor.

In terms of Middle East peace, it will take many more speeches. It will take international acceptance of President Obama's pragmatic, wise, no nonsense approach. There are parties at the negotiating table whose personal agenda is enhanced by the continuation of the hostilities. But, by continuing to discuss in public what everyone acknowledges in private, the larger Israeli and Arab communities can now bring pressure to bear on the peace process and use the growing weight of public opinion to fashion a more selfless resolution.

To be continued . . .