Friday, May 20, 2011

Obama, Israel, and the Arab Spring

So I watched Obama's speech on the Middle East. Many commentators seem to have focused on his comments on Israel, bluntly making it clear that the US favors a two-state solution. Nothing terribly unusual there; it's been clear for a while that will be required for a solution to this problem. He also spoke at length about the Arab Spring, and the hopes for democratic change. Again, doesn't seem very far out of the norm for a speech by an American president. Republicans, of course, attacked him for allegedly bailing on Israel. Part of this is appealing to hardline Israelis, hard of this is appealing to conservative Christians, and part of this is just a need on their part to attack Obama. More of the same.

But I haven't seen any commentary (although it's entirely possible that I missed it) on how the Arab Spring has completely changed the calculus in the Mideast, and how Obama grasps the importance of that. The Israeli-Palestinian issue has seemed intractable; both sides are dug in, neither trusts the other, and neither seems willing to compromise. But the Arab Spring has changed the debate, because it relieves a great deal of pressure on the Arab side of the equation. Corrupt Arab dictators have used Israel as a distraction; they've demagogued about Jews as a way of distracting their people from their own failings as leaders. The fact that many of them have access to oil wealth as a means of bribing their populations into complacency has, of course, been a big help.

But, as Lincoln said, you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Some of the countries undergoing transformation in the Mideast will become stable, secure democracies. Some won't. Some may very well see one dictatorship replaced with another. The best historical precedent that I can think of is what happened in with the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1989. East Germany was absorbed into West Germany, and the Central European states are free, while some in the Caucasus are not. The same will probably be the case in the Arab world; some countries will make a successful transition to democracy, some won't.

But those that do, it can be reasonably hoped, will flourish. And with that flourishing will come, again it is to be reasonably hoped, a lessening of the pressure to blame Israel and the Jews for the problems of Arabs. It won't be easy, but it's been done before.

Netanyahu and his Republicans allies don't see things this way. Hardline Israelis, at this point, just don't have a lot of faith in the ability of Arabs to become peace-loving neighbors. It's not hard to understand why they think that. But it's also not hard to understand that they can not afford to think that very much longer. Likud will be very reluctant to negotiate. And, of course, there are more than a few Jews in Israel who believe that the land is there by divine right. There are also a fair number of fundamentalist Christians and Jews in this country who agree with that. In this respect, the interests of conservative Israelis and conservatives Republicans are aligned.

Their interests are also aligned in the sense that they want to see Obama fail. In Netanyahu's ideal world, a Republican wins in 2012, and he gets to spend another few years resisting pressure from around the world to compromise on a two-state solution.

But a key difference between Netanyahu and Republicans is that Bibi isn't stupid, and he doesn't have a fallback option. If Mitt Romney doesn't become president, he'll still be a rich, comfortable American. What is at stake for Netanyahu is the survival of the state of Israel. Republicans don't mind a state of permanent war; it keeps the defense contractors happy. Israelis know that, ultimately, it is not sustainable. But right now, they are also scared that, if they give an inch, the Arabs, like Hamas, will take full advantage of their weaknesses, and destroy them. This is why the Arab Spring is so important: it provides a glimmer of hope that peace may, in fact, be a viable option. Hardline Israelis are still very skeptical of this, for very good reason. But the whole point of Obama's speech was to take that tiny flowering of hope, that smidgen of optimism, and make it grow. That is, after all, his specialty.

Obama and Netanyahu do not like each other, and they don't really trust each other. But they do respect each other. Each is a very smart man, and each is a brilliant politician. The key difference between Netanyahu and his Republican allies is that Netanyahu, in the long run, doesn't care whether or not Obama is reelected. But he does care a great deal the survival of the state of Israel, and he knows that peace is required for that. Republicans also want the survival of the state of Israel, but they also prefer a mindset that encourages Americans to be afraid of terrorists, so the Pentagon budget stays at its absurd levels. But what is most important to Republicans is delegitimizing Obama. If Obama can convince Netanyahu that he can at least make progress towards peace, he can split Likud and the Republicans. It won't be a wide split, but Obama can make it clear that their interests are not as solidly aligned as it seems they are today. Besides, Obama also knows that there are lots of American Jews - most, actually - who are liberal Democrats, and therefore agree with him. Part of the purpose of his speech was to mobilize them to be on his side. Obama has a chance of convincing Netanyahu to work with him, because Netanyahu respects Obama's political abilities. Obama's chief of staff was a Jew from Chicago. Rahm Emanuel is one of the toughest politicians in America, and he worked for Obama. Many Republicans look at Obama and see an effete liberal intellectual. Netanyahu does not make that mistake.

The possibility of achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians seems almost impossible to achieve. But a year ago, if you had said to anyone in the world that Hosni Mubarak would be overthrown by mobs in the streets of Cairo, you would have been laughed at. And if, in 2003 you had said that a black guy with a Muslim name who was an obscure state senator in Illinois would become president of the United States in 2008, every single person in the world would have thought you were crazy.

Every single person in the world except for two: Barack Obama. And Michelle Obama.

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