Obama was in Israel...and also in Palestine and Jordan

By Harry Hagopian
March 28, 2013

Prior to US President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel, alongside those to Palestine and Jordan, one key question asked by many observers was whether he would pull a rabbit out of his hat and come up with some formula to move the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations forward and help nudge both sides with a process for peace (since it was never truly a peace process) that has been crawling forward and then hurriedly sliding backward time and again for at least two decades.

I always maintained that this was the wrong question and certainly the wrong expectation. President Obama came to Jerusalem for a different set of priorities. One primary aim was to win over the Israeli public to the fact that he was as staunch a defender of Israel as any other president ever since the creation of the state in 1948. In fact, he not only achieved this objective but also surpassed himself with all the emoting, back-slapping and over-enthusiastic endorsements of Israel and its history since the period of the Dead Sea Scrolls that date back to at least 200 BCE. He even achieved an American presidential first by visiting Theodor Herzl’s grave, the founder of Zionism at the First Congress in Basle in 1897.

His other politically less emotive but more cerebral priorities - which incidentally could have been done over the phone - included serious and perhaps even robust discussions with the Israeli prime minister over the Iran nuclear file, the gory violence in Syria, the politics of flux in Egypt and the intractable Israel-Palestine conflict. I have no idea what went on in private, since the public statements were so well choreographed that they gave a new flair to the definition of coordination.

However, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Obama delivered a compelling talk to a group of Israeli young men and women (including non-Jews) in Binyenei HaUma (International Convention Center) at Giv’at Ram in Jerusalem. His talk was vintage Obama in that it was professorial, oratorical, glib and political at one and the same time. And once we had moved past the first half of the talk that dripped with overflowing acclaim for Israel and its right to exist on this land, it was actually quite moving in recalling the rights of Palestinians for justice and peace in an independent and viable state.

Disgruntled as the Palestinian and Jordanian public were with their perceptions of a biased visit, this talk might well have touched a raw nerve. After all, the time the president spent in Ramallah, Bethlehem (via the ugly separation wall) or Amman and Petra was almost incidental to the main focus on Israel. But to its credit, the US Administration also offered Jordan $200 million to assist with the Syrian refugee problem that is snapping the back of an ailing Jordanian economy.

But what about this talk to young men and women? Where does it rate on the political Richter scale?

I followed the feedback not only on television and radio or in the written press but also on Twitter and the larger blogosphere. Many people were positive, even congratulatory, of the talk and the rare way it sliced through equivocation. Quite, but I have never doubted President Obama’s elocution, linguistic abilities and intelligence or even his proclivity to season his talks with Hebrew words when describing Israel as Eretz Nehederet (a wonderful land) that is a throwback to a popular TV satire show. What I have seriously doubted though is his willingness to act upon those skills in order to coerce - not merely cajole - Israeli politicians into making those peacemaking concessions that a majority of the Israeli public seemingly supports according to successive polls. However, I am loath to disappoint Palestinians and Jordanians further by asserting that I see no real proof whatsoever that Israeli governmental trends will alter in any concrete way.

The talks might well continue as they have done throughout the past two decades since the Madrid conference of 1991, the Oslo Accords of 1993, the Geneva Accord of 2003, the rejection by Israel of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 (reaffirmed by the League of Arab States in 2009), the Abbas-Olmert / Livni discussions in 2008, let alone the personal initiatives or injudicious promises that have been not only disappointments but also deceptions - in short, political sleights of hand.

Hope is an abstract notion, and hope solely in an America-tailored and enforced settlement today is nothing more than a chimera. The Israelis and Palestinians will only manage to draw nearer to a peaceful resolution of the conflict if Israel acknowledges that it is occupying and colonising another people on their land - Dead Sea Scrolls notwithstanding in the real world - and desist from applying those oppressive measures that are apartheid-like. But hand-in-hand with an Israeli lack of obfuscation and procrastination would come a Palestinian acceptance to forgo some treasured chestnuts in return for an internationally-brokered peace. Can either side pull it off now? No. Ergo, the USA will not pull its weight, the conflict will not be resolved any time soon and the creeping settlements will render a two-state solution well nigh impossible, with the one-state alternative remaining unacceptable to Israel. It will eventually boil down to demography, to the long-term consequences of the Arab uprisings and to the political backbone of new Arab leaders.

One of President Obama’s favourite quotations comes from the civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It seems to me the arc is unendingly long for our lifetime.

Incidentally, there was also a clearly significant, even strategic, achievement for President Obama: a phone call between Prime Ministers Benyamin Netanyahu and Recep Tayyip Erdogan laid to rest the tiff between Israel and Turkey over the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010. A shame, though, that he did not pull off a similar call between Netanyahu and Abbas!

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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