Peace Talks

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POLITICS AUGUST 5, 2009

Peace Talks

Two Israeli writers caused a stir last week by calling on President Obama to speak directly to Israelis, similar to the way he has addressed populations from Cairo to Moscow. “Simply stated, take your campaign directly to the Israeli people, and soon,” Bradley Burston wrote in a Haaretz blog post. “Fail to do this, or wait too long, and you'd be well advised to leave the table while you still have chips.” Aluf Benn echoed this sentiment in The New York Times: “This policy of ignoring Israel carries a price.” Similar points were made just two weeks ago in a study by the Center for American Progress.

Both Benn and Burston seem to believe that Israelis disapprove of Obama because they don’t understand what he wants--simply because he has failed to explain it to them. It’s unsurprising that columnists friendly to the ideas of the Israeli center-left would suggest that Israelis are actually in line with Obama’s agenda. But there’s an easier way of interpreting Israelis’ uneasiness with Obama: They do understand him, and do not agree with him. If that’s the case, more Obama-talk will not make a big difference. It is very common to blame “communication” when things go badly between two parties. However, there are many things that no improvement of communication will remedy.

Both writers assume that Israelis don’t care much for settlements, and I tend to agree. However, as Benn starts explaining while not quite completing his argument (“Mr. Obama has made a mistake in focusing on a settlement freeze”), Israelis also don’t care much for doing something for no particular reason, or just because there’s a new sheriff in town. The settlements should certainly go, most Israelis believe--but they should go at this specific time only if the president can logically explain the benefit Israelis will gain from letting them go now. If all he has is the general “settlements are bad for Israel” argument, then nothing much has changed; Israelis already know that.

Yes, Israelis might appreciate the honor of having the U.S. president talking directly to them. (As Benn writes, “In the 16 rosy years of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Israelis became spoiled by unfettered presidential attention.”) But what exactly is he going to tell them? That peace is good for all and that he wants to advance peace? They know. That Palestinians suffer? They know. That he cares deeply for Israel’s security? They know he says that, and would like to believe it, but the real game-changer will require proof, not words. Clinton and Bush didn’t just say “We care for Israel” and instantly become darlings of the Israeli public. They showed they care--mostly by getting along well with the Israeli governments of Rabin and Sharon respectively. The Obama administration has done little to curry Israeli trust with their churlish attitude toward Netanyahu. In this sense, I agree with Benn and Burston: Regardless of the inevitable vapidity of an Obama speech directed at Israelis, the act of making the trip to Israel would be at least be a “deed”--a demonstration of good will on his part.

But words alone will not make Israelis trust Obama. Israelis do not suffer from lack of understanding of the issues; they suffer from peace-fatigue. They look at “peace processes” with suspicion, based on experience and events. They are scarred enough to know what has working and what has not, and they are tired of the good intentions of enthusiastic novices, believing that with their youth and their smarts they’ll be able to come up with some magic trick that can somehow round a square. What Obama needs is a convincing plan that makes sense. It does not look like he has one.

The president has reportedly sent letters to seven Arab leaders reminding them of “the need for CBMs [confidence-building measures] in exchange for [a settlement] freeze and to [get] peace talks restarted.” It hasn’t worked very well, and Israelis will be aware of this failure if they hear Obama talking about the need to stop settlement construction. So perhaps instead of the president making the effort of “talking directly” to Israelis with nothing new to say, maybe he ought to put his efforts into convincing someone else to address Israelis--somebody whose very act of speaking to Israelis would be significant in its own right. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia or President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria come to mind.

Regardless of its futility, my sources tell me that an Obama address to Israelis is coming soon. (Joe Klein was first to report this.) If he must do so, I can offer three pieces of advice: First, don’t lecture Israelis like you know what’s good for them better than they know themselves. You don’t. Second, don’t try to do an end-run on the Israeli government like you’ve done in other world capitols by speaking directly to “the people.” Don’t patronize them by saying that the Israel public knows better than its government what needs to be done. The public elected this government; the public you’re talking about is the public of some liberal American Jews, which has little relevance to the current reality in Israel. And third, don’t promise peace within a year or two. History is a better teacher of that lesson than I am.

I, for one, will not be disappointed if Obama chooses not to make the effort. I don’t think that Obama needs the approval of Israelis--nor, for that matter, that it is crucial for Israelis to have the personal sympathies of the American president. In fact, I think those “spoiled” Israelis can benefit from being reminded that not all presidents will be a Clinton or a Bush. Presidents come with different priorities and changing agendas--and Israel should make sure that it is always strategically benefiting the United States rather than relying on intangible romantic notions of shared values and religious sympathies to bolster the relationship. And perhaps more importantly, Israelis need to be reminded that we can live, for a long or short period of time, with a less demonstrably friendly America with no need for hysteria.

Shmuel Rosner is an editor and columnist based in Tel Aviv. He blogs daily at Rosner's Domain.

By Shmuel Rosner

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