Sunday, September 27, 2009

On Obama's block

Ari Shavit

Community worker Barack Obama called in the two neighborhood toughs for a chewing out at the Waldorf-Astoria. I am losing my patience, the president told the Israeli prime minister and the president of the Palestinian Authority. I've had enough of your antics, your provocations and your childish shenanigans. I am sick of your 100-year fight that is shattering windows, gutting shops and ruining life on the block. Although I'm not a cop on the beat like Rudy Giuliani, I'm no patsy either. If you two don't get together for a powwow to end to this damned gang war of yours, I'll deal with each one of you, personally. I'm not some sissy from Boston or Stockholm, I'm from Chicago. And in Chicago, they know how to handle gang lords like you. If you don't shape up - and quick, I'll lick you into shape.

Obama is right, but he has only himself to blame. To build a community you have to understand it; to this day, Obama hasn't shown that he understands the Middle East. And you need a realistic defining concept, around which to rearrange the community; to this day Obama lacks such a concept. Are Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas irritating? For sure they are. Are they small-minded? Of course. But these two are not the cause of the problem; they are its symptoms.
If the community worker doesn't get what the problem is, he doesn't stand a chance of coping with it. Even if he chews the tough kids out again and again, or even knocks their heads together, Barack Obama is headed for failure in the Middle East.

This is the problem: The Israeli-Palestinian status quo is unacceptable. The continued occupation of the West Bank denies the Palestinians of their rights, as individuals and as a people; it endangers the nature of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and it harms the interests of the West. A bid to end the occupation unilaterally is doomed to fail.

The lesson of the disengagement from Gaza was that withdrawal without a political agreement only inflames Palestinian extremists, pushes peace further away and maybe even brings war closer. Such a withdrawal could lead to a Palestinian humanitarian disaster, to a strategic weakening of Israel and to undermining the very regional stability that the United States is interested in achieving.

But the attempt to end the occupation through achieving peace has failed. The lesson of Oslo, Camp David and Annapolis is clear-cut: Even the most moderate Palestinian leadership is not prepared to accept Israel's most far-reaching peace proposal. In 16 years of a painstaking and exhausting peace process, the Palestinians never agreed to a single concession on a core issue. Their refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, to agree to demilitarize a Palestinian state or to give up their demand for the return of refugees to Israel has blocked peace in the past, is blocking peace in the present and will continue doing so for the foreseeable future. As of now, there is no genuine Palestinian partner for the partition of the country. Obama's Palestinian problem can't be swept under a carpet of words.

It is a cruel reality: The occupation is unacceptable and impossible, and unilateral withdrawal is hazardous. Those are the three sides of the trap. This is our neighborhood. That's the situation the community has to cope with.

Obama's two predecessors in the White House bashed their heads against the Middle East wall. Bill Clinton tried to precipitate a peace revolution, but failed. George W. Bush tried to foment a democratic revolution, but created chaos instead.

The lesson the incumbent should learn from these resounding flops is there's no room for revolutions in the Middle East. This region must be given evolutionary, and not revolutionary, treatment.

The key word is: process. Not a KO punch, but a long and thorough chipping away that will gradually change Palestinian society and at the same time lead to the end of the occupation. No one is more suited to the task than Obama. This talented community worker will have to see this blighted and violent neighborhood for what it is.

Instead of wasting time on doomed efforts to get Netanyahu and Abbas on the road to an illusory Peace-Now solution, Obama should initiate a gradual, deep and cautious process, one that will relentlessly partition the country.

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