Friday, October 3, 2014
U.S. President Says Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Not the Root of the Region's Problems - Zalman Shoval
Seeing is believing
It was clear before U.S. President Barack Obama's speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week that it would not be routine and would not rehash the standard and familiar positions about America's place and role among the family of nations. The cause for this was the crisis in Ukraine, but mainly the Islamic State's advance in Syria and Iraq and the countermeasures taken by the president, which he said were to "degrade and destroy" the radical Islamist organization. While the U.S.-led coalition's military campaign against the Islamic State is still being waged on a rather limited scale, for Obama and his well-documented apprehension of American over involvement in international conflicts, this is was a watershed moment -- certainly when compared to the "lead from behind" slogan he has championed in the past.
When Obama touched on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his speech, it initially appeared he would settle for repeating the usual mantras, like "the status quo is not sustainable," "America will not give up on the pursuit of peace" and others. Obama, after all, said that "the violence engulfing the region today has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the hard work of peace," but that the world and region "will be more just and more safe with two states living side by side, in peace and security." However, he then surprised and said what no American president before him has agreed to say, certainly not in such an explicit manner: "The situation in Iraq and Syria and Libya should cure anybody of the illusion that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the main source of problems in the region. For far too long, that's been used as an excuse to distract people from problems at home."
When I read this in the official and complete version of the speech, I could not believe my eyes. For many years now Israel's public relations and policy efforts have focused, without much success, on shattering the claim that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root of all the problems in the Middle East, not to mention America's problems with the Arab world, when comes along none other than President Obama with an outright and emphatic statement, the interpretation of which can clearly mean only one thing -- that we have been right all along. No longer will we hear that "the road to Baghdad runs through Jerusalem," as argued by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser; no longer will we have to hear that "American soldiers are risking their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan because the Palestinian problem has not been resolved," as stated by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and General David Petraeus, the former head of the CIA; no longer will we have to contend with those evil and targeted insinuations against Israel, whereby it is the primary and sometimes even the sole party responsible for all the bad things that have happened and are happening in this part of the world.
It is possible Obama's motives for saying these things were partially utilitarian and political: Midterm elections are at the door, and the thesis alleging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the source of all the region's woes does little but highlight America's lack of success, at least in the eyes of some observers, to foster a resolution. It is also possible that the president and his advisers have simply arrived at the logical and necessary conclusion that the spreading chaos in the Middle East, which also threatens to spill over into Europe and the U.S., is too severe and dangerous for them to continue hiding behind the excuse provided by the Palestinian issue.
Be the reason as it may, in any case it is a significant achievement for Israel's policy and public relations. We must not, in the meantime, delude ourselves into believing that people will not try reintroducing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, specifically Israel's role in it, to the diplomatic discourse. Regardless, even if this does happen, the significance of Obama's declaration will not be easily erased.
One person who is undoubtedly unhappy about Obama's speech is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who never misses an opportunity to howl out that the world is liable to forget the Palestinian problem due to the ISIS problem. It is even possible that Abbas' hate-filled speech was also connected to his anger at Obama: Even though Obama clarified, as stated, that the Palestinian issues was still on the agenda, perhaps that very integral part of Obama's speech was a signal that Washington has decided to look at things proportionately and hinted it no longer intends to support Abbas' "new" peace plan of unilaterally turning to the U.N. Security Council. In any case, one can also see the harsh condemnation of Abbas' speech by the State Department as affirmation of this conjecture.