Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Israel, Obama and the Peace Process

I had an extremely strange experience leaving Israel last week. As I was heading to the airport, Obama was giving his much-anticipated speech about the Israeli-Palestinian situation. At the airport, it seemed that everyone on line was frantically trying to get information about it, and process it. We were all desperate to know what he had said, and whether it was good for Israel. I was standing with another Rabbi who was on a post-speech conference call with the White House, and he was filling me in on details as he learned them ("he talked about two states...he said that Hamas sharing power with Fatah was very problematic..."). It was a bit like watching the news come in - too slowly - over a old-fashioned ticker.

The general consensus of those of us in our little group, and others I talked with that evening, was that Obama's speech was incredibly positive for Israel. He repudiated Hamas. He said (in a personal favorite line) that Israel has to have the right to defend itself, itself. He said that you can't expect Israel to negotiate with someone trying to wipe them off the map. And more. All in all, we agreed, it was great - a real win for Israel.

So, imagine my surprise when I arrive in Tampa, some 16 hours later, to find out that Obama was now a villan - the biggest enemy of the Jews and Israel since...well, since who? You can fill in your own inappropriate, out of proportion comparison, if you'd like. He "threw Israel under the bus," I heard again and again. "I can't understand why any Jew would vote Democrat," was thrown about more than once.

It wasn't easy trying to sort through the news. Even if I wasn't terribly jet-lagged, the back and forth in the press was terribly confusing. I started reading everything I could to answer what seemed to be one simple question: what, exactly, was so awful in what Obama had said?

Two states, living side-by-side? It's been the basis of negotiations for 10-15 years. Everyone talks about the '67 borders, modified through land-swaps, just like Obama did. Rabin, Barak, even at one point Netanyahu negotiated about it. Polls in Israel show overwhelming support by the population for the idea. It's both morally right (the Palestinian people really do deserve a country, no matter how evil some of their leaders may be), but it's also pretty clearly the only possible path to peace. There's simply nothing new here, and nothing particularly controversial.

Palestinian Unilateralism? One of the biggest worries from the Israelis I heard from was the Palestinian plan to seek unilateral recognition of statehood from the UN. Israel is in a near panic over the idea. But, Obama clearly and forcefully repudiated it, and given the US's veto power, that means a lot!

The idea that Palestine will border on Jordan? Admittedly, there is some disagreement here, as Israel has maintained that it needs to be in charge of that border, to stop infiltration of terrorists and arms from Jordan. But, that doesn't seem like a show-stopper, at least at this point. It's a difference to be worked out in negotiations.

Jerusalem and the Right of Return? Amazingly complicated and controversial issues. Obama decided to kick that can down the road. You can criticize that decision, but I think it was the right call. It certainly wasn't viciously anti-Israel!

I read a lot of articles which condemned Obama, but none offered any actual reason which I could find. I found a bunch like this one that I'm writing now, which pointed out how non-radical, how non-novel Obama was being. Jeffrey Goldberg said it in the Atlantic. Peter Catpano said it in the New York Times. Over and over I read what I had first thought: In large part, Obama did nothing more than restate previous American positions, and/or say what everyone knew.

I'm now of the opinion that nearly all, if not absolutely all, of the sturm und drang about this is political, in the basest sense. It's about scoring points, there or here, for one party or another. It's about Bibi (Netanyahu's nickname) looking strong to his coalition, and the Republicans trying to make Obama look bad, especially to the Jews, who have been overwhelmingly Democratic voters.

I'd love, on some level, to think it's more than that. It's hard for me to watch base politics take over on an issue about which I care so deeply (not that it surprises me). Maybe there are real issues here. If someone is reading who can name them, I sincerely, sincerely request that you do - I'm trying to stay open-minded, to keep reading, and to keep thinking. But, for now, I find myself believing that what Obama did is exactly what we needed him to do. I still don't really believe that there will be peace in my lifetime. At least, not real peace. But, I may be wrong. And, if I am wrong, then this might be exactly what it's going to take to make me wrong. I deeply, deeply hope so.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. 



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