Obama’s Opportunity
The president has to be smarter about the Middle East than his two most recent speeches would suggest.


Clifford D. May

President Obama has now made two speeches on the Middle East in quick succession — speeches characterized by soaring rhetoric and glaring inconsistencies. To take one example of inconsistency, 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 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 Eban, the eloquent Israeli diplomat, famously said, “The Arabs never miss the opportunity to miss an opportunity.” That raises 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 that they want the opportunity to create a Palestinian state and live in peace. We can’t imagine anyone wanting something different. But 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, “is attainable.”

When Hamas’s leaders mourn Osama bin Laden as a “holy warrior,” it says much 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?