Gil Troy: Center Field: Obama should resist Jerusalem Syndrome

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-26-09

US President Barack Obama should resist succumbing to the presidential version of Jerusalem Syndrome. For commoners, the malady describes the messianic delusions some experience visiting the Holy City. For presidents, the malady reflects the messianic peacemaking delusions that some, especially Democrats, experience when simply thinking about the Holy City.

In fairness, president Jimmy Carter was struck by Jerusalem Syndrome and it worked (at first). In a classic display of presidential willpower – backed by American might – Carter forced Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin into the Camp David peace treaty. The accords – signed 30 years ago today on March 26, 1979 – played to the presidential conceit that statesmanlike elbow grease could solve intractable problems, especially in the Middle East.

Although it was not clear then, the Egypt-Israel problem was relatively easy. While Egypt’s hatred toward Israel had been lethal, its objective interest in attacking Israel was minimal and territorial losses to Israel had diminished Egypt’s appetite for fighting. Trading Israel’s control over the under-populated Sinai desert for Egypt’s promise of peace did not involve masses on either side. Few Israelis considered the Sinai historically theirs. American payoffs created a competing national interest for Egypt not to attack, while compensating for the resources Israel enjoyed after capturing the Sinai to stop Egyptian aggression in 1967.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is much thornier. Competing land claims, shifting borders, mutually exclusive ideologies and overlapping boundaries with some areas characterized by Israelis surrounded by Palestinians, and others with Palestinians living cheek by jowl with Israelis, make Carter’s impressive work look like child’s play. Nevertheless, the first Democratic president after Carter, Bill Clinton, wanted to outdo him. Solving the Palestinian problem became Clinton’s Holy Grail.

It is easy to forget that Clinton nearly succeeded. Thanks to an unexpected Norwegian back channel, he hosted his own White House peace ceremony on September 13, 1993 as prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat approved the Oslo Accords (their respective foreign ministers actually signed). The famous moment wherein Clinton stretched out his arms and seemingly squeezed the two rivals into shaking hands symbolized his twist to the Carteresque aspirations of president as super-duper peacemaker.

Alas, by 2000 the Middle East became one of Clinton’s greatest failures. Despite hosting Arafat more times than any other foreign leader, he failed to transform this arch-terrorist into the Palestinian Nelson Mandela. Clinton’s search for a Middle East peace became an extended exercise in futility. Rabin was dead, murdered by a fellow Jew enraged by Israel’s concessions. The Palestinians, stoked by Arafat, had turned from negotiations back to terrorism, using weapons Israel and America supplied to slaughter hundreds of Israelis.

In his memoirs, Clinton would recall how Arafat – who was so dangerous because he was such a good liar – “thanked me for all my efforts and told me what a great man I was.” “Mr. Chairman,” Clinton replied, finally seeing through Arafat after years of being charmed, “I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one.”

It is hard for presidents to realize the limits of their power. Everyone they meet bows and scrapes – at his first presidential press briefing, Obama was taken aback when all the reporters stood as he entered. In that kinglike bubble, it is easy to forget your constraints. And when a president faces overwhelming problems like the current economic crisis, the search for a quick win, an easy fix, becomes irresistible.

Clinton’s sad experience should remind Obama – and Clinton’s wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – that the Middle East is not easily fixed. Alas, it seems that Obama may have to learn this lesson on his own. The quick handoff of the Middle East file to former senator George Mitchell suggests an impatience and a grandiosity – two deadly traits in Mideast peacemaking. The delusional but growing Brent Scrowcroft-Zbigniew Brzezinski consensus that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is the key to solving America’s problems with the Muslim world blinds policymakers to radical Islamists’ animus toward the West.

Osama Bin Laden began his jihad against the West in the 1990s, during Oslo’s heyday. He only began mentioning Palestinians with any consistency after September 11, to make his mass murder play to Western fantasies about “why they hate us.” Now, apparently top officials are urging Obama to deal with Hamas, overlooking that group’s genocidal, anti-Semitic charter. Perhaps most destructive of all is the growing assumption – popular among many leftist Israelis and American Jews – that Israel must be bullied to the peace table. This condescending presumption suggests that Israel is too immature to chart its own destiny and Papa America must take charge.

Oslo’s collapse taught that Israeli-Palestinian peace should be nurtured from the bottom up, not imposed from the top down. All the negotiators’ bonding mattered little with Palestinian schoolchildren digesting a steady diet of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist hatred. The suicide bombers and falling Kassams prove that ceding territory and declaring conflicts solved is not enough. Even President Shimon Peres, who has never acknowledged his Oslo failures, admitted that the unilateral retreat from Gaza was a mistake.

This is not an argument for presidential passivity but a call for presidential caution. Swooping down with a peace plan will not work. Seeking a Middle East grand slam to compensate for economic strikeouts is foolhardy and not even politically wise. Carter could not parlay his Camp David success into a reelection triumph – and he left office mocked for ineptitude. Obama should approach the Middle East as he approached his election campaign – with bucketfuls of hope floating on a careful, disciplined strategy rooted in reality, cognizant of complexity and measured for success.

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