Obama's Opportunity

Posted: May 26, 2011 11:45 AM
Obama's Opportunity
President Obama has now made two speeches on the Middle East in quick succession -- speeches characterized by soaring rhetoric and glaring inconsistencies. To take but one example of the latter, on Sunday the President said: "Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist." He was referring to Hamas, which not only refuses to recognize Israel but is openly committed to her extermination. Hamas recently announced it was merging with Fatah, considered a more moderate Palestinian faction.

In the same speech, Obama said that "the march to isolate Israel internationally — and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations – will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative."

But how can Israelis set in motion a "credible peace process" if their only possible negotiating partners are Palestinians with whom "Israel cannot be expected to negotiate"? The President is too smart not to perceive the sharp contradiction between these two statements.

He’s also too smart not to see this: Isolating Israel internationally has long been a goal shared by all Palestinian leaders. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who also heads Fatah, has found that abandoning negotiations actually has helped him advance toward that goal.

Abbas has not been penalized or even harshly criticized for refusing to negotiate with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On the contrary, European leaders, along with most of the media, prefer not to mention it. They either lament "the breakdown" of the dialogue -- as though it were a car that had stalled -- or they place the blame on Israel: If only Netanyahu were more dovish! If only he would offer more concessions, surely Abbas would return to the table and begin that "credible peace process" everyone wants! And that is what everyone wants, isn’t it?

There’s reason for doubt. Back in 1973, Abba Ebban, the eloquent Israeli diplomat, famously said: "The Arabs never miss the opportunity to miss an opportunity." That begs an essential question: What opportunity are they missing? What is it that Arabs – not least Palestinian Arabs – want but have not obtained when they have had the chance?

The usual answer is the opportunity to create a Palestinian state and live in peace. We can’t imagine anyone wanting something different. That may reflect a failure of our imaginations.

It should be obvious that peace is not a priority for Hamas or for Hezbollah or for Iran's rulers who fund both Hamas and Hezbollah. There is no mystery about what they value. They have told us repeatedly. Their ambition is to restore to Islam the power and glory it enjoyed in antiquity and which, they believe, it must have again.

In the short run, that requires the conquest (Fatah is Arabic for “conquest”) of the last little stretch of sand in the broader Middle East -- Morocco to Pakistan -- still ruled by infidels. In the long run, it requires, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said, “a world without America,” a goal which, he added ominously, "is attainable."

When Hamas leaders mourn Osama bin Laden as a "holy warrior," it speaks volumes about their ideology. And when, earlier this month, Hamas Member of Parliament and cleric Yunis Al-Astal told Al-Aqsa TV that he looked forward to a "great massacre" of the Jews who have been “brought in droves to Palestine,” his words did not require interpretation. This massacre, he added, will take place because "Allah wants to relieve humanity of [the Jews'] evil." He even specified that, "the Palestinians — and the Islamic nation behind them — will have the honor of annihilating the evil of this gang."

That is, plainly and indisputably, a genocidal threat. And it does pose "an enormous obstacle to peace," to borrow Obama's words. But the President added that Israel "must act boldly to advance a lasting peace," making clear he places the burden for progress on Israel’s shoulders. What does he think Israelis can do? Does he really believe anything Netanyahu says or does will change the minds or soften the hearts of Yunis Al-Astal and his comrades in arms? He’s too smart to think that. So why is he pushing the Israelis to do what cannot be done?

As for Abbas, he may not dream of restoring an Islamic caliphate or slaughtering unbelievers. But if the price of a Palestinian state is ending the conflict with the Jewish state, he may not be willing to sign the check.

And he may think Palestinians don't need to. His current plan is to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state and request recognition from the U.N. General Assembly where more than 50 states also hold membership in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Many third world countries without Muslim majorities will vote as the OIC asks. Many European countries will too – they will not want to anger a powerful bloc that includes several of the world’s largest oil producers. And, in some cases, their animus toward the Jewish state – and often toward Jews -- is all too apparent. The General Assembly does actually have the power to create a state or admit new members to the U.N. but the propaganda value will outweigh any arcane legal issues.

After that, this "international community" will charge that Israel is "illegally occupying" any land beyond the lines that separated Israelis and Arabs at the conclusion of the first war waged by Israel’s Arab neighbors in 1948-9. Arabs launched that war after refusing the offer of a two-state solution – one state for Arabs, one for Jews. The 1949 lines stayed in place until 1967 when Arab nations waged another war to erase Israel from the map. It was in that conflict that Israel seized Gaza from Egypt and the West Bank and sections of Jerusalem from Jordan.

Demanding that Israel withdraw behind indefensible borders will not be all: Israelis also will be told to open those borders to a flood of immigrants -- descendents and relatives of the Arabs who fled during the 1948-9 war.

Were that to happen, Israelis would become a minority in their own country. And the fact is not one of the more than 20 nations belonging to the Arab League grants their ethnic and religious minorities anything approaching equal rights. Will the Arab Spring change that? It’s too soon to tell but, based on the many Christian churches that have been set aflame in Egypt in recent days, there is reason for doubt.

Israelis will have no choice but to refuse these demands. That will lead to anti-Israeli boycotts, divestment and sanctions. On Sunday, Obama said, "the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the United Nations or in any international forum. Israel's legitimacy is not a matter for debate. That is my commitment; that is my pledge to all of you."

Over the next few months, he will have an opportunity to act on that commitment and pledge – to publicly defend Israel against those who want to destroy her and those merely indifferent about her survival. Is Obama eager to seize such any opportunity? There is reason for doubt. Nevertheless, Israelis and their American allies must hope he doesn’t miss it – for the sake of both nations.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.

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