Barack Obama’s Cairo Speech, and His Israel Problem

If the president hopes to accomplish anything important while finally visiting a key U.S. ally, he’ll need an attitude adjustment, writes Marty Peretz.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP,J. Scott Applewhite

Last week President Obama announced he will finally visit Israel. But there’s no guarantee that it will be a pleasant trip. And it certainly will not be if he lectures the Israelis yet again about what they owe the Palestinians. After all, the Arabs of Palestine could have had, like the Jews, a state pursuant to the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan (which sanctioned for the Arabs a bigger state than the Jewish one that was offered) and then again after the 1967 Six-Day War. Instead the Arab League responded to Israeli peace overtures with the Khartoum declaration of the “three nos” of the Arab Solidarity Charter: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.”

Comparisons will inevitably be drawn between Obama’s 2009 trip to Cairo and his impending one to Jerusalem. His fanciful Cairo speech—delivered with no evident recognition that each and every one of the Arab countries was at that moment on the precipice of chaos—was a shoddy and slippery job, historically so misleading on so many matters that one can hardly attribute it to innocent error. Granted, some of this had to do with the president’s own ignorant romanticization of Islam and the Arabs. Some of it was sheer invention, like his treatment of U.S. diplomacy during the late-18th- and early-19th-century Barbary Wars as a prelude to a long-term peace between Muslim principalities and America and his taking on for the American people sins against Muslims, like prohibiting the wearing of the hijab, which are actually not issues in the U.S. Largely, the speech could have been not an oration but an indictment of the United State before the International Court of Justice. Does the Internal Revenue Service really discriminate against Islamic charities, as he claimed?

It is not even four years since Obama’s counterhistoric discourse. But already two years back, with the beginning of the dreamily named Arab Spring, his version and vision of these societies had degraded into real human and social wreckage. Of course, the happy chimera still holds as a liberal canonical truth. Try raising the matter of Arab or Muslim essentialism at a Harvard Square dinner party.

But for all his romance with the Muslim world, the president has a tick about Israel. Why does he find Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, so much more congenial than Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu? Experts tell us that the American president is on the phone with the Erdogan more than with any other foreign leader. Why? After all, Erdogan is leading his country resolutely in a strident Islamic direction, he has picked endless and dogmatic fights with Israel, and his country has more journalists in prison than any other. Moreover, Erdogan has intensified the internal war against the Kurds and, after much ballyhoo, has done about zero for the rebel Syrians, with whom he pledged solidarity many months ago. He also is proposing constitutional changes to the Turkish judiciary. Under this plan, eight of 17 appointments to the constitutional tribunal would be designated by the president. One quarter of the new supreme court would also be appointed by him. And who is “him”? Oh, yes, Erdogan is running for president. Obama has had nothing to say about the demolition of Turkish secularism or about Erdogan’s authoritarian bent. Nor has he stood up for the cause of political freedom and pluralism now under attack in practically all—no, all—Middle Eastern lands other than Israel, where an increasingly moderate center is setting the parameters of its politics and society.

Yet, Obama somehow can't resist telling the Israelis how misguided they are in reading their own neighborhood. He makes no secret about this. Jerusalem, which the administration insists is not factually located in Israel, will now have to deal with Chuck Hagel, who is likely to be confirmed this week as secretary of Defense and who has rarely even disguised his antipathy to the Jewish state. With Hagel waiting to run the Pentagon, all our allies now have a heads-up on America's impending strategic withdrawal from their world. No one can honestly deny this, and almost no one tries.

After all, we already lag far behind socialist France in the protection of human life and dignity against militant Islam. This is quite an achievement. So Israel will no longer be dealing with a Defense secretary who has real-life commitments to it and to the free world, in general, but with one of those cool “realists”—actually more than a bit ruffled, as we saw at his confirmation hearings—who thinks that we have no determined enemies, only rational and flexible adversaries. We have yet to experience what John Kerry believes about this, although his optimism about peace between Israel and the Palestinians suggests that he may not have seen the handwriting on the wall. We are about to see what we shall see. Iran is a test of this argument. I believe the case is settled.

Yet it has been Syria, because of the loss of nearly 70,000 lives in the civil war, that has already shown the fatuousness of American policy over time. The president was apparently convinced that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could be lured away from his inheritance as a tyrant’s son, from the corrupt interests and brutalizing habits of his tiny Shia sect and from the by now ingrained manner of a military, which like North Korea’s, brooks neither questioning nor dissent. We have been treated in these last weeks to panegyrics about Hillary Clinton’s performance as secretary of State. The apotheosis of anyone is almost always false, and the apotheosis of a pretentious pol is also wicked. The fact is that she has accomplished nothing except giving speeches and spreading preposterous illusions, like her belief that Assad had the makings of a reformer.

The administration had argued that arming the rebels would strengthen the rebel ultras. As it happens, not arming the rebels was what strengthened the extremists among them. And believe it or not, now that they are triumphant, the administration is contemplating arming them anyway. We are about to witness a witches’ Sabbath, which neither Obama nor Clinton did anything to impede—although both General Petraeus and Leon Panetta did, to no avail. The truth is now out. If you look back to the president’s Cairo speech, you will find that he hadn’t an inkling that the world of Araby was about to collapse in blood and fire—sacred blood and fire, some would say. Amid this pan-Arab bloodshed and aside from the intra-Muslim wars where not a day goes by without some mass killing of Shia or Sunnis, there is also the remorseless persecution of Christians, especially in Egypt. This grim reality was also something the president’s Cairo address overlooked, reflecting either ignorance or cynicism. I suspect the latter.

This is the world with which Israel is being asked to reconcile. For the present, it is the Palestinian Authority—itself splintered into factions rough and rougher—that would be the recipient of Jerusalem’s West Bank concessions. After all, it is Mahmoud Abbas who sits in Ramallah, relatively prosperous and also the capital of what there is of modern Palestine. But there is scant guarantee that its powers would not soon be in the hands of Hamas, a cohort of murderers more gruesome than the P.A. and which already reigns in Gaza.

In any case, Arab politics is bloody and raw, and no agreement with or among its parties has ever held for long. The territory in dispute is grand in the imaginings of history and infinitesimal in geography. This is a volatile mix, and with the Arab penchant for glory, no contention can be discussed truthfully.

That mix is a standing temptation for mischief and atrocity. Or the invention of atrocity, as in the Palestinian tale of a massacre in Jenin more than a decade ago and many times since elsewhere from Dan to Beersheba. No one can be trusted to patrol any agreement honestly as, for instance, the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon, in existence since 1978, proves. What about the United States guaranteeing a peace agreement? Being obsessed with Palestine, Obama might just agree. But Americans, both idealists and realists, should not permit our armed men and women into such perils. Now there is the other Obama habit: pour our troops in, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, and pull them out when they are being shot at in intolerable numbers. There is still John Kerry’s immortal question asked of a Congressional committee oh, so long ago, and actually apt for our imperiled men and women in Afghanistan now: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

The irony of Obama’s confidence in his mission of peace for the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs is that he has been proven demonstrably ignorant of the region. The irony of his hauteur toward Netanyahu is that it is applicable to the Israeli center, as well, and even to parts of the left, which also is not eager to open the country to new rounds of terror. The mass of Israelis do not want to govern Arab life. They do not want to run Palestinian foreign policy, if the other Arabs will allow such to be. But neither are they ready to admit unto Zion untold numbers of “refugees” into the fourth generation, and they won’t. Nor can they pretend that Arab insistence on a return to the armistice lines of 65 years ago is realistic or just. The march of time now runs faster than ever before. The “Arab state” envisioned along side the Jewish state by the General Assembly in 1947 is no more.

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Barack Obama will be welcomed in Israel, for the pro-American sentiments run deep in that country. But if he comes to Israel to save it from itself or to browbeat its governing coalition, he is sure to return empty handed. Israelis know their neighborhood, and they can see laid before them the erosion of American power and authority in a region they understand much better than foreign visitors in a hurry.