Will Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4 one day be seen as the cornerstone of an historic reconciliation between the West and the Islamic world and between Israel and the Arab world, or will it look like he was spitting in the wind? Any prediction here would be rash, but we can reasonably suppose that the answer will appear sooner than later.
Sooner, because the logic underpinning the American president’s initiative is not that of the long negotiation process. He never mentioned the word ‘negotiation’ in his speech. There will be talks and meetings, of course, because Obama cannot force the opposing parties to sign agreements they do not want. But he is well aware that in the Middle East, negotiations are a quagmire and that ‘step-by-step’ diplomacy leads to deadlock. This paradoxical truth arises from the nature of the conflict and the tragic histories of its peoples. How to persuade the Israelis to make territorial concessions if we cannot guarantee the perpetuity of their State? And how to persuade the Palestinians to recognise Israel when it refuses to finalise its borders, thus giving itself the option of pushing them further, at the expense of a hypothetical Palestinian state? So long as both sides have no clear idea of what the future might look like, those opposed to compromise will have little trouble convincing their peoples that any concessions they are asked to make will only weaken them. Given this, it is no surprise that hardliners regularly win majorities in both the Knesset and the Palestinian Parliament.
Obama didn’t criticize Israel’s hawks, and he spoke about Hamas in moderate terms. He asked only that the settlements end. And he demanded an end to all violence. Beyond these, he made no pre-requisites. The conflict’s various players will be judged only when the final agreement is in their hands. Those that accept it will be on the side of peace; those that reject it will be the warmongers. And, as has happened at the resolutions of so many other conflicts, whatever they will have done through decades of conflict will be written off.
Obama’s speech at the University of Cairo revealed that he won’t be satisfied with the role of the intermediary or facilitator: “We cannot impose peace,” he said, “But privately, many Muslims recognise that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.”
This last sentence limns the voluntarist line that the president has in mind. He isn’t inviting the various parties to meet and share their points of view. What good could it do to hear them for the hundredth time? We know what each side is obliged to assert in public and what they quietly admit to in private. It is now up to “us” — meaning the United States — to act.
The June 4 speech laid out unambiguously the political and moral foundation of Obama’s approach: “The aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”
The wording here is a priori unacceptable to the great majority of Arabs, and probably to most Israelis, too. Yet it is now the only conceivable point of agreement.
In these terms, Obama defined his view of the legitimacy of Israel. For the Arabs, however, there is no such legitimacy; they see a people who came from Europe, settled in Palestine, took over its land and houses and expelled the Arab population from the country; and because the West justifies the founding of Israel and supports it with money and weapons, it is seen as Israel’s accomplice. Some Arabs have adapted to this state of affairs because they cannot do otherwise; others limit their criticism to Israel’s actions in the territories it occupied in 1967; but privately, very few Arabs accept the legitimacy of Israel. Obama knows this and is taking the bull by the horns. If we want to establish lasting peace, then we have to give the Arabs, and even the Palestinians, a reasonable explanation for the creation of a Jewish state, and for the United States’ backing of it — a bond that is “unbreakable”, as Obama made clear from the outset of his speech, leaving his audience under no illusion. “Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald…”
Historical legitimacy or biblical legitimacy
In Israel, there are two ways of justifying the creation of the state. One is historical, the other biblical. The first claims that to end persecution and humiliation, Jews needed their own state and that the choice fell on Palestine because, long ago, it was the kingdom of Judah and the kingdom of Israel. The second claims that Palestine is the land promised to the Jews by the Lord, that it is and always has been theirs by right, and that the Arabs who have lived there through the centuries were merely occupying it illegally. When George W. Bush became president, he brought with him an electoral base of fundamentalist Christians fascinated by the biblical universe, which led to the United States in effect subscribing to the latter theory.
The argument’s political implications are obvious. If Israel is a refuge for persecuted Jews, then it must have safe and recognised borders, which its political leaders must be empowered to define according to strategic reality. If, on the other hand, Israel exists because of a divine promise, then every place mentioned in the Bible may be legitimately settled.
Over and above theological subtleties, and beyond even the territorial implications, what’s at stake here is the future of the relationship between today’s “civilisations”, as well as the future of the relationship between religion and politics across the planet. If we tell the Muslim world that Israel exists because the Bible promises it to the Jews, that for centuries the Arabs of Palestine have been squatters, and that now they simply have to accept their lot, then we will see interminable religious wars and embark on centuries of intellectual and moral regress. If, on the other hand, we tell the Muslim world that Israel was created as a safe haven for persecuted Jews — and Obama was careful to evoke the death camps, the gas chambers, the six million victims (“more than the entire population of Israel today”) to the University of Cairo’s students — and if we add, as the president did, that the Palestinians have also been victims, and that the time has come to give them, too, a country where they might live in peace, dignity and prosperity, then we will have laid the foundations of a peace accord that will let both sides hold their heads high.
Will the Arabs buy it? Not light-heartedly. But they are helpless, battered and exhausted, and may do so out of necessity; they may do so because they know that all negotiations become bogged down and that violence leads nowhere. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is reported to have told the American president, in essence, “Write an agreement and we’ll sign it. Force us to do it, if necessary!” But the president knows that this doesn’t amount to unconditional licence. No leader will sign an unjust or humiliating treaty, one that looks like a diktat handed down by an unfriendly power. For the Arabs to accept an historic compromise that recognises Israel, then the United States, as the agreement’s sponsor, must be seen as a friend to both sides. A friend to Israel, of course, but equally a friend to the Arabs. Obama has given himself the considerable task of restoring the lost trust between America and the Islamic world, a task that he began to tackle in his Cairo speech with dignity but without arrogance; respectfully but without complacency. He talked about Islamic civilization, of its contributions to humanity, of the muezzin he heard calling to prayer during his childhood in Indonesia. But he did so only after having made clear: “I am a Christian.” He mentioned the tradition of tolerance in Islam, but didn’t hesitate to mention the lot of the minorities, the Palestinian Christians, the Maronites and the Copts. And he talked about the rights of women, too. He took a line that didn’t dodge controversies, notably on the wearing of the veil. But he chose his words carefully – “Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons”. His audience applauded him at various stages of the speech, notably when he accused of duplicity those political leaders who talk about democracy when they’re in opposition, then forget it when they come to power. He didn’t quite manage to pronounce the Arab words correctly, but he found the right tone and came across as a friend.
It is hard to gauge what the reaction in Israel will be to the compromise put forward by the new America. A priori, we might expect virulent opposition. On the other hand, we might be in for all sorts of surprises, and that’s what Obama is counting on. He’s trying to convince the Jewish state that he is also their friend, and a far more genuine one than was his predecessor.
During the Bush era, Israeli leaders felt that they could do whatever they wanted. Even when Washington tried to hold them in check every now and then, the Israelis knew that they had nothing to lose by carrying on regardless. Impunity is a poor teacher, however. By allowing the settlements in the West Bank to expand and indefinitely delaying the establishment of a Palestinian state, the Israeli government reduced its own room for manoeuvre and discredited any potential Arab partner. Israel found itself in the unenviable position where peace is impossible and successive wars resolve nothing.
Without attacking his predecessor by name, Obama implied that those who encouraged the Israelis down this dead-end track did not behave as a friend would. A true friend would take the opposite course and lead Israel out of the impasse. If the conflict in the Middle East East brings into focus all the hatred between the West and the Islamic world, then an equitable solution would become the starting point for an historic reconciliation between the two spheres. Israel’s future would no longer depend on the continued escalation of the “clash of civilizations”. Instead, its rebirth would be anchored to an historic reconciliation.
Many Israelis refuse to entrust the defence of their country to international guarantees. In Cairo, Obama told these people with as much clarity as is possible on a subject as taboo as this one: they will not be asked to disarm or even give up their nuclear arsenal. He said this in coded but not indecipherable language. The United States will adhere strictly to the clauses of the non-proliferation treaty. Signatory countries — including Iran — have the right to develop civilian nuclear facilities, but not weapons. Israel, who is not a signatory, is under no such obligation. And the president never mentioned the nuclear-weapons-free Middle East that the Arabs are demanding. Instead, he talked about “a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons”, which is, of course, mere wishful thinking.
Can Obama’s initiative succeed where so many others have failed? It could go either way. Hardliners on both sides now see the American leader as an enemy and a threat. From those who carry out what he carefully called “violent extremism” — thus distancing himself from the word “terrorism” that was forever on his predecessor’s lips — we can expect the worst. We can expect provocative actions that will put the president on the horns of a dilemma: to not retaliate would make him weak in the eyes of his people; to retaliate would jeopardize his open-door policy. And in Israel, it goes without saying that a section of the political class, supported notably by the settlers, will seek to destabilize the democratic administration by any means possible.
The Cairo speech leads the West and the Islamic World, the Arabs and the Israelis, into a turbulent zone. But if the undertaking Obama proposed in his speech succeeds; if a significant number of Arabs and Israelis consent to it; if, indispensably, the Jewish-American community supports it; if it takes into account the concerns of every party, including those of the Palestinian refugees and the Jewish settlers in the West Bank; if it is backed by a generous ‘Marshall Plan’ that brings prosperity to families and nations; and if it draws the moral and material support of Europe, China, Japan and the oil-producing nations; then it has a good chance of succeeding. Still, the road to peace remains slippery and perilous from start to finish.
(First published in the French news magazine l’Express on june 11th 2009).