The expectations around Barack Obama in Israel and Palestine were low. This visit was all about showing love for Israel and Zionism with a touch of criticism if it wouldn’t upset his hosts. Noam Sheizaf at +972 correctly explains that pretty words aren’t useful in this conflict:
Measuring the value or effect of a speech on its own is futile. Words matter in a political context, power relations and the actions that they accompany. Just as nobody seriously thinks that a good speech can make health care reform pass in the House, Obama’s speech needs to be evaluated within the politics that surrounded his first term and his current visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories.
On the level of words and rhetoric, there was a mixture of “good” and “bad” in Obama’s speech. The worst parts, I think, were the reaffirmation of the Israeli perception, according to which Israeli governments continue seeking peace but have been answered by Arab refusal. When there is a comprehensive peace offer on the table from ALL Arab regimes – the so called Saudi Peace Initiative – which Israel has chosen to ignore for over a decade, such rhetoric on the part of the president only helps Israelis to continue avoid facing the truth. The president also backed the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, something that Netanyahu introduced as a way to avoid meaningful talks. No previous Israeli government has put forward such a demand, but after Obama backed it, now everyone will. Bad move.
On the positive side, there were some very clear words about the occupation, and they were based not only on Israeli interests, but also on moral values and the Palestinian right to freedom. I want to post this part here, because these are important and truthful words:
“[The] Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”
Still, without meaningful political actions, this was an empty effort. Everybody in Israel can be happy with the president’s speech: the Left heard all those niceties regarding peace, while the Right proved that the occupation has no cost, that the rift with the U.S. doesn’t exist and that denying the Palestinians their freedom is sustainable policy (examples here, here). At the end of the day, Netanyahu’s confrontational attitude has humbled the U.S. president and changed both his tactics and his goals on the Israeli/Palestinian issue. The prime minister payed a price for his politics, no doubt – seeing the president talking to Israelis over his head was surely unpleasant, and could further diminish his popularity – but Netanyahu was nevertheless able to maintain the status quo on the Palestinian issue, which is both something he believes in, and the key to his political survival.
More seriously, the real questions are completely ignored in the circus surrounding the Obama visit. This piece in the LA Times, by Ian S. Lustick, outlines some of the issues while still ignoring the ethnic cleansing that took place in 1948:
Zionism proposed a Jewish state in Palestine as a solution to the great crisis of European Jewry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Jewish state would protect a beleaguered people, end anti-Semitism and provide modern expression for Jewish nationalism. More than a century later, Israeli leaders, whether they believe in it or not, still invoke Zionism to justify their policies and to reject criticism. But the assumptions and beliefs that were an effective basis for policy a century ago are outlandish now.
Just consider: Theodor Herzl’s Zionism began with the assumption that the homelessness of the Jews was a vital problem for the international community, which would impose a Jewish state on resisting Arabs to solve it. Early Zionists imagined building a modern secular democracy, a rampart of Western civilization against a barbarian east sunk in backward religious ideas. Eventually, it was expected, the region would modernize, becoming like Israel, and accepting of and even grateful for its presence. It was assumed as well that in a Jewish state, Jews would be protected against threats to their existence.
The iron grip of this outmoded ideology is why Israel seems so out of step with the times.
Israel is not the vanguard of a Europeanized Middle East that embraces it gratefully. The world is fixated on an international problem of homelessness for a persecuted people — but not the Jews, the Palestinians. Israel is not secular, and it is not the only democracy in the region.
As the masses enter politics in the Muslim Middle East, the governments they are producing are not Israel’s allies.
Even the Iron Wall, the idea that at least medium-term security can be provided by establishing Israel in Arab eyes as an unwanted but permanent reality, collapses under the threat of missiles carrying weapons of mass destruction, and the Holocaust mania they engender.
Any ideology is a map of political terrain — locating dangers, roads ahead, obstacles and opportunities. Forced to use a Zionist map of the late 19th century to navigate the 21st, Israelis are confused, often to the point of fury and despair. Israelis need a new map; one that does not identify anti-Semitism as the root of the country’s problems; that is not wedded to the unilateralist “heroism” of land grabs in the 1930s and 1940s as a way to overcome moral uncertainties and international opprobrium; that does not fashion Palestinians as Nazis or the U.N. as the British Mandate.
The new map must also reflect the one fundamental objective of Zionism that has been achieved. Israel is a normal country, as prone to stupidity and brutality in the name of its old gods as any other. More ominously, it is as likely as any other small country to pay the terrible costs of not seeing the flaws in itself it so naturally sees in others.
In its day, Zionist ideology was a valuable problem identifier and guide to solutions. Now, however, except for the foundational principle that Jews deserve the rights of any other people, the traditional discourse of Zionism is an obstacle to Jewish welfare and security. Israel can live in a post-Zionist age, or it can die in one. As we say in the Jewish tradition, choose life.