POLITICS JULY 1, 2009
"I mean, in a way, Obama's standing above the country, above--above the world, he's sort of God." These drug-addicted words come from Evan Thomas, a longtime editor at Newsweek. He uttered them on Chris Matthews's MSNBC show. Such words would wreak havoc on any person's ego, even Barack Obama's. It also would enrage his enemies.
After all, the president has told us that he is a mere student of history, and that he is.
But history these days is no longer a discipline inclined to defend the truthfulness of its claims or the reasonableness of its arguments or the plausibility of its conclusions. More and more, history has become a competition between and among narratives, self-consciously disdainful of what we used to think of as fact. In this intellectual competition, the losers almost always win or, at least, they win the "moral argument." Not in real history, mind you, but in many a Western professor's classroom. And, sometimes, in an American president's mind.
The truth is that Barack Obama has a penchant for these narratives and yet an inclination to rise above them. Two grand but antithetical stories about the same problem, awaiting him and his Olympian skill for the discovery of "common ground": That is Obama's favorite script. He regards himself as a kind of unprecedented referee between histories and philosophies. He likes to think that he can see what others cannot see and that, therefore, they must come to him if they wish to live in peace and with meaning. He did this with race in the Philadelphia speech, articulating what blacks see from their end of the periscope and what whites see from theirs. (Until, that is, he had to dump his minister from the campaign truck as a matter of survival. "Common ground" is sometimes not discovered so much as invented, or imposed.) A man of not especially discriminate empathy, he sees himself in the Whitmanesque sense of containing multitudes.
In addressing American intelligence and security professionals at the National Archives, the president again aimed at bridging differences by showing that apparent contradictions are not contradictions at all and that everything will go together, if only for as long as he is speaking. National security that never compromises national values? No problem. National values that guarantee national security? Say it and it will be done. Yes, we have values that elevate and restrict us at once, the ideal of free men and women that procedurally protects also the guilty and the wicked--and never mind that, absent energetic domestic and international defenses, these principles would be outmaneuvered and outclassed on both fronts. And again at Notre Dame, the same above-it-all structure of rhetorical conciliation was applied by Obama to the subject of abortion. "Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words." Nice enough. But the debate on abortion will not be so tidily retired. All of this is rising above but not really reconciling.
I suppose that President Obama thinks that in Cairo he bridged many narratives. He certainly appeared to try: on the one hand, on the other, us and them, more or less equal in our stories. But real history is the telling and interpretation of actual happenings. It is specific, concrete, particular; it eats analogies and commonalities for breakfast; and it requires what used to be called knowledge--correct facts and warranted interpretations of them. From the standpoint of knowledge, not every assertion has equal weight, even if it is deeply felt.
There are two basic narratives to the nearly century-old Jewish and Arabs-of-Palestine dispute. The sheer truthfulness of these narratives is so unbalanced that Obama or his panel of oddly partisan experts must have felt obliged to tamper with real history. What is most brazen or, at best, bizarre in Obama's historical recitation is the stark omission of the whole Zionist enterprise. Instead, he chose to understand the Jewish presence in Palestine as a sort of restitution for the Holocaust. For the president, the balancing of claims--and they must always be balanced; he does not tolerate asymmetries, which would make his divine even-handedness impossible--requires distortion of what actually happened. First off was to diminish the determination of the Jewish people through the ages, and especially since the age of nationalism in the mid-nineteenth century, to reclaim their homeland, to bring its very earth out of desolation and restore its dispersed sons and daughters to Zion--all this not as a reparation, but as a right. By the time World War II--before the Holocaust, that is--began, there were already more than 500,000 Jews in Palestine. Most of them had arrived as their palpable reply to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, to the approval by the League of Nations of a British mandate for a Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1922, to the recommendations of the Peel Commission for a two-state settlement. None of this enters the president's text, not even a hint of it, perhaps because it might muddle the clarity of the equal-claim argument.
What perhaps the president doesn't recall from the history he studied is that Jewish sovereignty in postwar Palestine was only one of several rearrangements contemplated for the vast territories that had been governed by the Ottoman Empire, now expired. From this land mass emerged the states of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, North Yemen, and various other adjustments of frontiers on behalf of the Wilsonian principle of the self-determination of nations. These countries, composing almost the entire Fertile Crescent, were vouchsafed to the Arabs, their first experiments at self-government in history. (Did these experiments work? That's for each of us to judge.) Tiny Palestine was intended for the Jews. They were already at work in the desert, in the swamps, in their kibbutzim, in their new cities, including Tel Aviv, in their bourgeois enterprises, in their universities and research institutions. And, moreover, they had revived their ancient language, making it a living tongue with ancient cadence and modern purpose. Hitler had exactly nothing to do with this revolution. Is all this not a revolution worthy of presidential recognition?
When Obama attributes the establishment of Israel, and also Israel's fear that the Iranian government and many Arabs would quite happily visit another devastation on it, to the Holocaust, he is in fact accepting Dr. Ahmadinejad's analysis of the Zionist triumph and also one of the tenets of Palestinian rejectionism, which is that the Palestinians are correct in their phobia that they have paid the price for what the Nazis did to the Jews.
If the president does not grasp Israel's history, he should be more modest in his judgments. Here's just one huge fact that does not fit into the president's sweeping explanation for the success of the Jewish state: Why did more than 800,000 Jews return to Zion from their thousands of years of exile in the Muslim world beginning with the very morn of independence? Surely this rupturing of communal life dating back, in some cases, three millennia was not Holocaust-related.
"On the other hand"--remember, there must be symmetries--the president declared in his parallel reading to the Jewish catastrophe that "it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people--Muslims and Christians--have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation." Obama went on: "Many wait in refugee camps ... they endure the daily humiliations--large and small--that come with occupation ... the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own." Nor should America turn its back.
But it should also perceive that Palestinian history and Arab history, as written by themselves and told and retold to schoolchildren, is a blame-the-other history. A keen observer of the West Bank and Gaza describes a teacher in a Bethlehem school and his thoughts about his pupils:
He began to read through their short essays on the demise of the Ottoman Empire. He spent a great deal of his time, too much of it, angry with these children. He tried not to be, but he couldn't stand to listen to them when they rolled through the political cliches of the poor, victimized Arab nation, subjugated by everyone from the Crusaders and the Mongols to the Turks and the British, all the way to the intifada. It wasn't wrong to see the Arabs as victims of a harsh history, but it was a mistake to assume that they bore no responsibility for their own sufferings.
This meditation is from Omar Yussef, the hero of three detective fictions by Matt Beynon Rees, this one called The Collaborator of Bethlehem. We are in a bad way when a novelist, even a skilled novelist, has a more secure and sophisticated hold on the realities of Palestine than the president's tutors.
There is a little bit of razzle-dazzle even in how Obama treats numbers. It's not only Muslims who have suffered in occupied Palestine. Also Christians. But probably less than 2 percent of the population--maybe 45,000 souls--in the West Bank are Christian, a steep decline attributable mostly to the radical Islamicization of the territories. Fewer and fewer Christians can survive the mayhem around them, and they go to where other Christians from the Arab world have escaped before them, to Australia, for example, and to Dearborn, Michigan. The remaining Christians live terrorized lives, and Israel the occupier is actually their shield. (In Gaza by now, there may be as few as 2,000 Christians. ) A similar looseness with numbers is in the president's bald announcement that there are seven million Muslims in the United States. QED. That number shouldn't upset anyone. Still, I believe that Obama is--how shall I put this?--breaking demographic ground.
I, too, am for a two-state solution. I always have been. As the president said, "many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state"; he should have said "most" rather than "many." For most Israelis recognize that need, and their governments have tried to negotiate toward that end. Alas, Obama cannot and does not say that most or even many Palestinians recognize the need for a Jewish state or even, for that matter, the Israeli state. Here there is no symmetry, alas, that will serve. The most he can say is that, "privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away." Why does he not say "many Palestinians"? Perhaps because it would be stark deception. So which Muslims? The democratic but, alas, irrelevant and tolerant Muslims of Indonesia? Or Cairenes, especially the intellectuals, who have lived under a peace treaty with Jerusalem for all of three decades, but have not quite accommodated themselves to the existence of Israel?
The Arabs of Palestine have been violently opposed to the existence of two states since the beginning. But, since the president goes back only six decades, I will abide by his timelines.
On May 14, 1948, Lieutenant General Sir Alan Cunningham, the seventh and last British High Commissioner, struck the Union Jack from Jerusalem's Government House (and, later that day, from his departing ship in Haifa Bay) as a solitary Scottish bagpiper played the joyless Highland Lament. The Partition Plan for Palestine, approved by the United Nations General Assembly on November 29, 1947, had effectively brought the Crown's self-mortification with the end of the Mandate. Read carefully the delicately negotiated words of the Plan: The mandate was to be split into a "Jewish state" in Palestine, mostly desert, and an "Arab state" in Palestine. This is the two-state solution that used to be called "partition," which the Jews accepted and the Arabs did not. The fact is that no one stood up to receive the gift of internationally recognized independence for the Arabs in Palestine, and no surprise. There was little national sentiment among them. The privileged family of Edward Said, like other privileged families, had moved to Cairo already in late 1947.
Syrian, Egyptian, and Jordanian armies were marched into what had been designated Arab Palestine so they might accrue for their own countries what had been assigned to the locals and whatever else might be carved out of the new Jewish state by war. In the north, the country's Arabs fought mostly for Syria. To the east, they fought mostly as brawlers for King Abdullah's British-trained and British-commanded Arab Legion, which ended up controlling the West Bank and soon annexed it to Jordan itself. In the south, what little provincial participation there was, they were on the side of Egypt, personified in those days by the comically rotund King Farouk, fez on his head, who would govern Gaza--no one in, no one out--until the colonels bounced him and his throne in 1952. So much for Palestinian nationalism.
When Yasir Arafat founded the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1963, he set it not at all against the land's Arab occupiers but against the Jewish state. There was no thought then of a two-state solution. I believe that whatever mouthing there has been among the Palestinians about two states is like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, the EU and various Americans eagerly playing the puppeteer. No one had the courage among the Arabs to say what Chaim Weizman told his fellow Zionists: We shall accept a state the size of a tablecloth. And, of course, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert offered their Arab neighbors much more. In fact, 97 percent of the West Bank and much of Jerusalem. They had the backing of their publics, too. But Israelis are no longer so amiable and cooperative. With good and sufficient reason.
I suppose that if so many Israelis can absolve the Palestinian Arabs of their history (or the lack thereof), Barack Obama can do so, as well. After all, pain they have plenty. How could it be otherwise? Looking across the 60-year-old armistice lines and what they see of Israel on television (also, ever less in person) is the absolute negation of the lack of progress in their own lives, both individual and communal. To be sure, any people that allowed a mountebank like Arafat to hijack its already flimsy national aspirations will be punished, not by God Almighty, but by what the rais and his successors have together sown: the weeds of wild violence, unsurpassed corruption, hatred of the neighbor, the confusion of history, and falsehood, and an allergy to true learning. All of these are, to be ruthlessly truthful, intrinsic to the Palestinian inheritance.
It was more than a bit disconcerting to hear the President give strict instructions to Israel via an Arab audience when his admonition to Muslims was actually quite docile and fuzzy. One vaporous instance: "The richness of religious diversity must be upheld ... fault lines must be closed among Muslims as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq." From Obama's mouth to God's ears. Or more precisely, perhaps, from Obama's mouth to Obama's ears.
But "it is time for the settlements to stop." Which settlements? Does the president believe that several particular Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem are "settlements"? Fess up. If they aren't, and the towns abutting the armistice lines aren't either, the president may have a deal. If not, he's in a fight against real history. And, believe me, I am mortified by many of the settlements. I think they are dangerous for the Jewish state. But not as dangerous as leaving the West Bank in unreliable Palestinian hands. Like in Gaza. But what does the president think is the consequence if Netanyahu actually stops construction in the settlements, however described and defined? What does Obama think is the next step? Will the Palestinians be more forthcoming, and with what? Will the next step be to coerce Israel into taking in some Palestinians who are, 60 years after, still defined as refugees although they live only ten miles away from where their great-grandmothers made falafel?
So, in the end, the grand conciliator violated his own principle and spoke asymmetrically: He was very tough on Israel, but he was vague to the Palestinians and to the Arabs. The president was not at all specific about what he wished from people who are still enemies of the Jewish state. Every Israeli concession requires a reciprocal concession, and not just words. But even words are difficult to extract from the Palestinian Authority, the so-called moderates. Mahmoud Abbas said only a fortnight ago that he had only to wait on what Israel surrenders. No reproach from anybody in Washington, except a few honest journalists.
There was one startling passage in Obama's speech that very few commentators have noticed, perhaps because they also don't know their history. "Islam has always been a part of America's story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second president, John Adams, wrote, 'The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.'" Now, as Michael Oren recounts in his magisterial history of America's enmeshment in the region, Power, Faith, and Fantasy, the fact is that this treaty, which imposed a ransom of money and ships on the Americans, was a fraud. Moreover, within four years, Tripoli captured another U.S. ship and went on to take into captivity other American vessels and their crews. Suffice it to say that wars, declared by the Pasha of Tripoli and undeclared, continued with more death and more ransom, until 1815. Let it be hoped that the Treaty of Tripoli in which President Obama delights so much will not be a precedent for the agreement he wants to forge between Israel and the Palestinians or between the United States and Iran. It is also a scandal that no one on his intimate staff told him the facts--if, indeed, they knew them--about the settlements with the Barbary Pirates. They are a precedent for nothing, except cheap getting-to-yes ecumenicism.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief of The New Republic.