Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama the peacemaker

Obama's remarks today in Cairo (transcript, full video) probably constitute the most constructive thing any American president has said regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in years:
At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.
This was the right thing for a president serious about making peace to say. How will Israeli religious fanatics react? By seizing an opportunity to bid for peace, Obama exposes himself to new dangers. It was a courageous moment.

In domestic politics, I have noted here that Obama's inclination to play the "unity card" has tended to undermine the position of many of his supporters at the bargaining table to the advantage of his Republican opponents (see Psst, Obama: your party won the election!). We saw that with the bank bail out, his proposal to permit indefinite detention, and stance on torture. If you enter into a negotiation with a tepid plan, announce your intention to compromise, what kind of deal are you going to end up with? Basically, what Americans got: deals that favor established interests over change. Arrangements that favor bankers over citizens; national security hawks over moderates -- and as I anticipate we will see later this year -- insurance companies over patients.

Nevertheless, with regards to the conflict in the Middle East, Obama's instinct for compromise may bear fruit. In Cairo Obama said:
For decades then, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It's easy to point fingers -- for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought about by Israel's founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security. (Applause.)
The language, the phrases are Obama classics. In the Middle East, I think Obama has arrived at a time, a place, a situation that really calls for this president's trademark "stereoscopic" approach to policy (captured in the line "if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth").

Does anyone have what it takes to reconcile Palestinians and Israelis? Perhaps this most unique president will succeed where others have failed.
Photos by Jotman. Top one show Obama at the London G20; bottom one shows the mosque at Obama's former elementary school in Jakarta which I visited in 2008.


  1. I would love to see Obama bring peace to this war torn area. Needless to say it will be a hurculean effort, much as will his battles with Wall St., health care insurers and other big business interests in the U.S. It's been a long time since we've had a president who had any inkling of what change was really about...the question remains whether or not President Obama will be able to institute any positive lasting change in U.S. or world government, society or business. Lord knows we could use such change.

  2. Interesting that you discuss the idea of it being a "hurculean effort"...

    Watching Obama's performance to date, I'm beginning to wonder if, for him, it wasn't all about winning the presidency. It occurs to me that Obama may not have sufficient enthusiasm for the job itself to put forth that kind of effort.


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