Obama the president is not Alexander the Great

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-26-10

I understand Barack Obama’s impatience with Israel. I see his logic whereby if only Israel would freeze, concede, withdraw, the conflict would end. I can imagine the appeal, for the first African-American president, the first incumbent president to win a Nobel Peace Prize in decades, the first president to pass such sweeping health care legislation, of his next big win being in the Middle East.

Just as Alexander the Great solved the problem of the Gordian Knot by slicing it in half rather than untying it, Obama the president wants to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict by cutting through what the world consensus has deemed to be the obstacle to Middle East peace: Israeli intransigence. Alas, Obama is no Alexander. So far, the more Obama pulls at this knot, the tighter it gets; the more Obama pressures Israel, the more the Palestinians raise their basic demands.

Obama is failing because he is blind to history. He is ignoring the history of Israeli willingness to compromise. In 1947, David Ben-Gurion accepted the UN’s Partition Plan, the Arab leaders did not. Thirty years later, Menachem Begin relinquished the entire Sinai Peninsula in return for Egypt’s promise of recognition and peace. And in 1993, Israel accepted the Oslo Accords, recognizing Yasser Arafat as a peace partner and arming his henchmen.

No one, no matter how charismatic, self-confident, or powerful, will succeed in jump-starting the Middle East peace process without acknowledging Israel’s longstanding openness to compromise – and the series of betrayals Israel has nevertheless endured. The Oslo Accords degenerated into Arafat’s terror war, during which over 1000 innocent Israelis were murdered. The Gaza withdrawal of 2005 led to Hamas’ rise and intensified the rain of Kassams pounding Sderot and other Israeli towns. This is not ancient history. This is not about who first had ties to Jerusalem centuries ago (which, of course, the Jews did). This is about a longstanding pattern of Palestinian violence and intransigence, manifested repeatedly – and recently.

Israel also remains justifiably haunted by the perversions of Jenin and the wrath of Goldstone. Jenin is shorthand for two sobering lessons. Back in April, 2002, when Israel finally, belatedly counterattacked after hundreds of its civilians were murdered, Palestinians slaughtered 23 Israeli reservists in an ambush in the West Bank town because Israel chose to go house to house rather than bomb from the air. Not only did the international community fail to give Israel credit for displaying remarkable restraint, but within days Palestinians accused Israel of committing mass murder in Jenin. Even after this lie was exposed, the taint of illegitimacy still lingered around the Israeli army. Similarly, the Goldstone Report of 2009 offered a topsy-turvy accounting of Israel’s actions during the Gaza operation in late 2008 and early 2009. The report ignored the years of patience Israel exhibited before responding, and, among other outrages, downplayed how Hamas planted terrorists and bombs among Gaza’s civilian population.

So, yes, if you ignore Arafat’s war and Hamas’s rise, the Jenin slaughter along with both the Jenin and Goldstone libels, Israel does seem intransigent. And Israel can seem inconvenient if you accept the simplistic slur that Israel causes America’s Middle East headaches. But Osama Bin-Laden started planning his anti-American terrorism during Oslo’s heyday. The jihadists admit that they hate America because it is too Christian and too secular – yes, that is a contradiction – meaning too Western and non-Islamic.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Israel’s supporters, can repeat these facts again and again without convincing Obama, Israel’s critics, or even many American Jews, who condescendingly call for Obama to administer some "tough love" to Israel, treating a sovereign state like a recalcitrant teenager.

Therefore, it is imperative that Israelis accept the legitimacy of Palestinian claims to the land – oops, most Israelis have.

And it is imperative that Israel negotiate with the Palestinians, demonstrating tremendous flexibility and openness – oops, that’s what Ehud Olmert did.

And it is imperative that Netanyahu declare his acceptance of a two-state solution – oops, he did that already.

And it is imperative that Netanyahu accede to American demands for a construction freeze in the West Bank, while taking down checkpoints, empowering Palestinian security and helping the Palestinian economy thrive – oops, he did that already.

And it is imperative that Netanyahu endure the humiliation of being browbeaten by the US secretary of state, vice president and president – oops, been there, done that.

This is what galls Israelis and the pro-Israeli community – including increasing numbers of American voters, according to the latest polls. Obama has harmed Israel by casting it as the obstacle to peace rather than the peace-seeker. This pernicious accusation feeds the Arabist and radical leftist Big Lie seeking to delegitimize the state itself. All Israeli peacekeeping gestures are ignored, as is Palestinian rejectionism. When Obama’s administration, to its credit, actually condemned Palestinian incitement reflected in honoring terrorists with street naming, most major media outlets ignored the statement, because it muddied the simpler narrative of Israel the intransigent, the obstacle, the illegitimate.

Even though his and his country’s peacemaking gestures have been ignored, Netanyahu should make one more move – Anwar Sadat style, offering to go to Ramallah while inviting Mahmoud Abbas to the Knesset. There, Netanyahu should say, "I’m willing to negotiate, with no preconditions, no preconceived outcomes. Here’s my phone number, the ball is in your court."

In response, understanding that he has made his point with Israel, while only hardening Palestinian hearts, Obama should lighten up on Israel. Obama should denounce the delegitimization derby as a threat to peace. He should acknowledge Israeli efforts at compromise and fears of violence following concessions. He should continue pressing for peace talks, if he thinks they might succeed. But he should understand that if he wants to convince Israelis to make the difficult compromises peace will require, American reassurance and acknowledgment of Israel’s disappointments will accomplish much more than American bullying. We need less Alexander-style hubris and more of the centrist wisdom candidate Obama promised.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Institute Research Fellow. The author of Why I  Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, he is also the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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