Friday, June 19, 2009

It's really the settlements, Mr. President?

By Joseph Aaron, Editor, Chicago Jewish News. This is a two-part column that I chose to reprint in its entirety from Chicago Jewish News as I plan to use it to rebuke letters to the editor that attempt to ape the president's faulty logic.

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Let me see if I've got this straight.

A group acting in the name of Islam, sent by someone revered by many Muslims, flies two planes into the Twin Towers, killing almost 3,000 innocent people, the vast majority of them Americans, and the American president travels to one of the most repressive Islamic countries to make nice to the Islamic world?

The plight of the Palestinians, largely of their own making, them having rejected offer after offer from the partition plan in 1947 on, having murdered thousands of Israeli men, women and children, having walked away from a deal by the Israeli prime minister in 2000 that would have given them 99 percent of what they want, including part of Jerusalem as their capital, it is their plight that the American president compared to that of American slaves and to the systematic extermination of six million Jewish men, women and children?

The American president saw as a big concession to Israel and the Jewish people the fact that, in stirring and eloquent words, he made a big point of saying that yes, the Holocaust did actually take place?

I truly don't get it.

Now before I tell you how disappointed I am in President Barack Obama's big speech, let me just remind you that I am politically left of center, generally support the positions of the Democratic party, have been a strong supporter of the peace process from day one, believe Israel should give back almost all of the West Bank, believe there should be a Palestinian state and believe all religions are deserving of respect.

So I don't come at this like one of those knee-jerk right wingers like Rush Limbaugh or Fox News who believe Obama can do nothing right; or like those knee-jerk right wing Jewish groups like the Zionist Organization of America or the National Council of Young Israel who think Obama is out to get Israel; or like those knee-jerk crazy Jews, of whom there are way too many, who think Obama is an Arab lover intent on ending America's support of Israel.

When it comes to the Middle East, as with so much else, I think Obama's heart is in the right place. But what his speech in Cairo showed loudly and clearly is how much he sees everything as if it were an election campaign, how much faith he has in his own words, how much he thinks he is the first one to figure things out and, most of all, how unbelievably naive he is.

He really truly thought that by making this speech, by saying a few things out loud about what this side needs and feels and what that side needs and feels, that he would transform the dynamic of the Middle East and lead us to the peace that has eluded so many lesser leaders than him.

Proving only how little he understands the Middle East.

For starters, let me say loudly and clearly, that this speech will have virtually no positive affect of any kind on anyone in the region, that it will change nothing for the better. And that what little impact it might have will be a negative one.

Obama said his speech was all about telling the truth, which he seems to believe no one else has ever thought of before or done before. Problem is that he didn't tell the truth. Not even close.

And the clearest example of that was that he did not once, not once in an hour long, 6,000 word speech, use the word terrorism. Which is a very real reality in the Islamic world and emblematic of the basic malfunctions of the Arab Islamic world.

For a guy who said his speech was about telling the truth, he didn't once tell the Arab world the truth that it relies on terrorism as a way to make its political points. It did that on Sept. 11, it has done that in the 61 years since Israel was established, it even did that when a Dutch newspaper printed a cartoon many Muslims felt was insulting to Mohammed.

I find it stunning that while Obama in his speech said all the right things about democracy and human rights and the rights of women, the only two countries he visited on his trip were Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the two places where democracy and human rights totally do not exist and have no hope of coming to be as long as dictators are in charge. Both brutally repress their own people, and it is clear that will continue, for once Mubarak goes in Egypt, his son will be anointed to take over, just as it is clear the royal family in Saudi Arabia will continue to rule with an iron fist and give free rein to clerics to continue to promote wahabism, the most hateful form of Islam.

Not one word of condemnation for either government in this speech devoted to telling the truth. Rather in his actions by visiting these two countries and publicly embracing their leaders, Obama gave them added legitimacy and reassured them he isn't going to ask them to change. Which is just one of the ways his speech will have a negative impact.

There are so many more. But before I get to how the speech will make things worse, let me first note the fact that Obama came to the Middle East and made two stops - Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Not Israel. Though it is right next door. Though that would have sent a signal to the Arab world, which in his speech he said must do more to accept that Israel is a part of their neighborhood.

Ask yourself one question. Can you imagine Obama coming to the Middle East and only visiting Israel? Is that conceivable? If he would come to visit Israel, would he not have felt it vital to visit at least Egypt and Saudi Arabia just to be fair? If he had only visited Israel, would we not have seen violent protests in the streets of Egypt and Saudi Arabia?

Okay, back to the speech. Obama began the part that focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with very moving words about the horror of the Holocaust, strongly condemning those who would deny its reality. I appreciate the words, I really do. But there is something very sick about the fact that in this major address to the Muslim world that he needs to firmly tell them not to deny the Holocaust.

The Holocaust happened. It is a fact, not something up for debate. To deny it is not to have a political difference, it is to be nuts, wacko, like saying there is no sun in the sky. That in 2009, such a basic historical fact is being denied by Middle East leaders and that so many in the Middle East buy that denial to the point the president of the United States has to tell them to stop that, tells you so much about the reality of the depravity of the Middle East and that its got a lot bigger problems than some settlements in the West Bank.

Speaking of which - and again I am no supporter of the settlements, believe too many settlers have said and acted in disgusting ways, and am more than prepared to give the Palestinians about 97 percent of the West Bank - but when exactly did the root of all the problems in the Middle East become the settlements?

Obama has evidently decided that he is being this brave, insightful leader by making the settlements the big issue at the start, by forcefully insisting that Israel stop building or expanding them. That to him is talking truth and that to him will lead to the Arabs then making significant gestures to Israel which will then lead to a lasting peace, two sides living by side by side, all because Obama out loud took on the settlements.

In fact, that shows how much he doesn't understand the way the Middle East works. He thinks if he shows the Arabs how he is pressuring Israel on the settlements, they in turn will be so grateful that they will come out and make gestures to welcome Israel to the neighborhood. If they see an effort to stop settlements, which they want, well, by golly, then they'll do something Israel wants.

Except that is not how things in the Mideast, or how the Arab mind, works, where the bargaining in the shuk mentality rules. By pushing Israel so hard on the settlements, what Obama has done, as the Arabs will see it, is hand them a stop to settlements without them having to give anything. A freebie. They put that concession in their pocket and wait for the next one. To them it shows how easy Obama is to roll and just whets their appetite to see what else they can get him to get from Israel.

We saw that with Gaza. Israel evacuated every single settlement in Gaza. All of them. Did that then lead the Palestinians to make a gesture back to Israel, to reciprocate and move peace forward? Just the opposite. They turned Gaza into a launching pad for missile attacks on Israel. They saw Gaza not as a magnanimous gesture, but as a sign of weakness, saw it not as a step toward peace but as confirming the wisdom of their terrorist policy. Terrorism, they believe, got them Gaza and will get them more.

By so publicly calling for Israel to stop settlements, especially in his big speech, what Obama has accomplished is the following: he has made it politically impossible for Bibi Netanyahu to agree, for to do so would make him appear weak and caving in; and the one thing Israelis won't abide is a weak leader. And the one thing Arabs are keenly attuned to and ready to take advantage of is any weakness on Israel's part.

Obama's well meaning naivete about how the Middle East works has also done more damage...

As I said, he began the part of his speech about the Israelis and Palestinians by talking about the Holocaust. He noted that the Jewish people's "aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied."

No. Wrong. Dangerously, obscenely wrong.

The aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted not in a tragic history but because Israel is the land that G-d promised to, gave to the Jewish people. G-d told Abraham that he would give that land to his descendants. Abraham, the father not just of the Jews but also the Christians and yes the Muslims.

The Jewish tie to Israel is rooted not in the Holocaust, not in pogroms, but in the Torah.

And if bringing in religion as part of a political issue makes you uncomfortable or angry, tough. Read Obama's speech and see how many references he made to the Islamic religion, how many times he quoted the Holy Koran, referred to the Holy Koran, talked about the teachings and messages of Islam. Well, if it's okay to note how important religion is to Muslims, if he said he visited Saudi Arabia because it is the "place where Islam began" then it should be okay to refer to Judaism, the Torah, how our tie to Israel is rooted in G-d saying that is our place, the home of His chosen people.

And if talk of religion is not enough to show the bond between the Jews and Israel, refer to history, to how there has been an unbroken Jewish presence there for more than 3,000 years, how Israel is the only place on earth where Jews have ever been sovereign, how it is the only place we have prayed for, worked for, dreamed about, no matter where we lived, for every day of our existence going back thousands of years, at the very start of our story, long before our tragic history.

No, the aspiration for Jews to live in Israel is not rooted in our tragic history, but in the fact that it is our ancestral, traditional, historic and yes, G-d given home.

The danger in saying what Obama said is if, in fact, we are in Israel because of the Holocaust, then the Arabs can justifiably ask why "the Arab nation" has to provide the safe haven for the Jews. If it was Europe that caused us so much suffering, let Europe make up for it. How about carving out part of Germany and making it the Jewish homeland? That would be more fair and just if the only reason we came to Israel was to escape the killing fields of Europe.

Another troubling aspect of his speech is that Obama concluded his remarks about the Holocaust by noting that "six million Jews were killed, more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today." Then he went on, "On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people ... have suffered in pursuit of a homeland."

What? On the other hand? He is equating the systematic extermination of six million Jewish men, women and children, with Palestinian suffering in pursuit of a state?

It is a comparison nothing short of obscene, amazingly ignorant of history and fact.

Palestinian suffering has been of their own making. Suffering that could have been avoided had they simply accepted the United Nations' partition plan of 1947. Suffering that could have been avoided had the Arab countries not launched the war of 1967 in an attempt to destroy Israel. There were no settlements before 1967. Suffering that could have been avoided had the Arab countries provided the funds to close the Palestinian refugee camps and built decent housing for their brethren, instead of keeping the camps open to score political points. Suffering that could have been avoided if the Palestinians had agreed to the unbelievably generous offer given them at Camp David in 2000 which would have given them a state, 97 percent of the West Bank, half of Jerusalem.

On the other hand? Jews had no choice, no chance to avoid the suffering of the Holocaust, were nothing but productive, model, loyal residents in all the countries where they have been persecuted.

That the Palestinians have suffered is undeniable. That the Palestinians could have avoided their suffering had they just been willing to live in peace with Israel is also undeniable.

What Obama has done by his odious comparison is let the Palestinians off the hook. Yes, they can say, sure the Jews suffered in the Holocaust, which was not our fault by the way, but we have suffered just as much, and that's completely the Jews' doing. They suffered at the hands of the Nazis and we have suffered at the hands of the Nazi-like Israelis.

There was one other aspect of the speech that I found troubling. As the New York Times put it, Obama "twice referring to 'Palestine' in a way that put Palestinians on parallel footing with Israelis"... and that Obama's "empathetic tone toward the Palestinians ... left many Palestinians and their Arab supporters jubilant ... because they saw the speech as elevating the Palestinians to equal status."

Look, I strongly believe there should be a Palestinian state and that the Palestinians deserve to be treated with dignity, but the simple, very important fact is that they have not earned 'parallel footing with Israelis" or "equal status" and to just hand it to them was both wrong morally and foolish politically.

Israel and the Palestinians started in the same place 61 years ago. Some of the Jews able to survive the Holocaust and able to make their way to Israel joined the ragtag collection of Jews there, in a land with no natural resources. They chose to accept the half a loaf of the partition plan and went about the business of building a state. And so they have done. Establishing a vibrant democracy in a part of the world where that is an unknown concept. Creating from scratch an innovative high tech economy. They have made the desert bloom, assembled a strong army, brought forth a highly creative culture. They have absorbed Jews from every corner of the earth, revived an ancient language, built world class hospitals and universities and businesses-all while fighting war after war, enduring the enmity of its neighbors.

The Palestinians, by contrast, said no in 1947 and have squandered the time since, stagnated, no democracy, no economy. They have preached and practiced hate and intolerance, wrapped themselves in a blanket of victimhood, blamed the Jews for all their woes, purposely kept their people living in misery, become world experts at only one thing - terrorism.

There is a difference. The Palestinians have not earned what Obama gave them -parallel footing with Israelis. Yes, they deserve their own state, yes they deserve to live in dignity, but he should have told them that to get that, you have to earn it, show you deserve it, demonstrate you would do good with it. Let us see democracy and the rule of law and the dismantling of the terror networks, let us see as much effort in building an economy as in perfecting weapons, let us hear words of peace in your mosques and on your TV, not calls for Israel's destruction, as Hamas, the most powerful Palestinian faction and the only Palestinian party mentioned by name by Obama, continues to do.

You can't be given respect, you must earn it. The Palestinians have not done so. And yet Obama handed it to them, giving them no reason to work for it, showing them their way has worked. They have done nothing to show they are ready for peace, ready for their own state, and yet they have been given parallel footing with Israel by the president of the United States.

This speech was Barack Obama doing what Barack Obama does, using his gift of eloquence and his powerful words to show compassion to both sides, have each side try to understand where the other is coming from, demonstrate understanding for how each side sees things, urge that we forget the past and look only to the future, convince those listening that, with the audacity of hope and the belief that yes we can, any disagreement, even the most difficult and longstanding, is resolvable. He's done that with hot button issues from abortion to race, and doing that got him elected president of the United States.

Yes, I am thankful he said nice things about the "unbreakable" bond between the United States and Israel, yes, I am glad he told the Palestinians that violence has gotten them nowhere, yes, I am pleased he told the Arab world it must accept the fact that Israel "will not go away."

But the big problem with this big speech is that the conflict in the Middle East is not a political campaign and the people who live there are not just like the voters in Iowa.

The Arab Middle East is a place where time is measured not in election cycles, but in millennia, where up is down and right is wrong, where to be reasonable is to be seen as weak, where there is no win-win only win-lose, where hatred trumps the truth, where reaching out is seen as being a sucker, where Osama bin Laden remains a hero to many, where too many would rather kill Israeli children than make the future brighter for Palestinian ones.

The Arab Middle East is a place where the president of the United States has to come to implore, plead, make the case that it's time to finally admit that the Holocaust did actually take place.

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