For years, Washington has turned the other cheek while Israel pursued a policy of unflinching resistance to any compromise or outright withdrawal from the West Bank. However, the lesson learned from unilaterally pulling out of the Gaza Strip may be affecting continued reluctance to deal with the status of the West Bank.
But with his speech in Cairo, President Obama has on one hand thrown down the gauntlet to Jerusalem to abandon its resistance to a two-state solution with the Palestinians. On the other hand, it has opened the prospect for a permanent peace accord that will dare the Arab world to end its long time animosity toward the state of Israel. Both challenges will require unprecedented courage and statesmanship from Jews and Arabs. Nonetheless, mistrust characterizes the attitudes of both sides.
It has reinforced the Arab world's belief that the United States is irrevocably aligned with Israel and can never expect a sympathetic peaceful initiative that would lead to a peaceful resolution satisfactory to the Palestinians. The Israelis believe that neither the Palestinians or the rest of the Arab world will ever grant them legitimacy by recognizing their status of nationhood. President Obama recognizes this gulf as he explained in a surprisingly candid interview following his Cairo speech that he had with seven journalists from Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia. the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Malaysia and Indonesia.
I have visited Israel innumerable times and talked to Israeli and Palestinian political figures, journalists and academic experts since 1967 when I first walked across the Golan Heights at the invitation of the Israeli Defense Forces. Having seen the ruins of the Syrian army, knowing the fate of the Egyptian army at the hands of Ariel Sharon, I was convinced that a peaceful accord with its Arab enemies was inevitable. That hunch was furthered by a conversation I had with Moshe Dayan, the daring commander of Israel's Defense Forces whom I had met earlier in Vietnam when he went to understand the U.S. use of helicopters in combat. Dayan predicted that the occupation of the territories could not be permanent. "It would be like a cancer around our throats," he said. Unfortunately, according to Israeli historians I interviewed, Dayan never had the clout to convince Israel's political leadership of his conviction.
For decades, unfortunately, friends of Israel in the United States have been telling its political leaders that the continued intransigence with regard to the territories, both in the West Bank and Gaza, was a hopeless impediment to peace. But these voices are by no means in the majority. Other well-funded American friends have encouraged the right wing within the Israeli political system to believe that resistance to withdrawal from the West Bank, as it has from Gaza, is something that can be deferred indefinitely with little consequences.
Obama recognizes the divisions within the American Jewish community. He knows many prominent Jews from his days in law school and his years as a professor at the University of Chicago. David Axelrod, his senior staff advisor, and Rahm Emanuel, his Chief of Staff, are the first Jews ever to hold the two top staff positions in the White House. But he obviously is counting on the dynamics within Israel to have its greatest impact. That is why he has dared the Israelis to walk down paths they have never walked before by having an American president for the first time tell the leaders of Hamas and other violence-prone Arab leaders that they must recognize the legitimacy of Israel's existence as a condition of a permanent peace with the Jewish state. That's tough medicine for the Palestinians to swallow, but perhaps even tougher for Benjamin Netanyahu to believe.
Obama said he had met with Netanyahu several times, first as a senator and then as president. "In each case, I found him a very intelligent person, an excellent communicator.... So I believe (he) will recognize the strategic need to deal with this issue and in some ways he may have an opportunity that a Labor or left leader may not have."
As an unflinching opponent of peace with the Arabs in the past, the odds are heavily against the Israeli prime minister ever shocking world public opinion. But he has the opportunity of reversing course and placing the responsibility for such a daring move on Barack Obama's back. It would give Israel's right wing leader an unprecedented opportunity to strike a Nixon-like pose and reach out to the Palestinians the way the late American president did to the Chinese Communists in 1972 by going to Beijing and Shanghai to shake hands with Mao Zedong to sign unprecedented protocols that changed Sino-American relations in a profound and historic manner. It would be unheard of in Israeli as well as American circles to ever think of Netanyahu as a peacemaker. But then who can forget the Sadat-Begin meeting during the Carter presidency? That was the kind of daring move that altered Nixon's image on China before he was sunk by Watergate.
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