Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pride Made Plain

This morning The New York Times published an op-ed from Aluf Benn of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, where Mr. Benn decries that President Obama has not delivered a major policy address to the Israeli people. While he raises one or two legitimate points, I found most of the column some sort of cry for attention. In perhaps the most succinct example the ridiculousness of Middle East diplomacy, Benn cries foul declaring:

“The Arabs got the Cairo speech; we got silence”

Never mind the fact that Obama is just entering the eighth month of a forty eight month term. Never mind the fact that for the past seven years the only message coming from the White House to the “Arab” people is that the U.S. sees every single last one of them as a threat. Never mind the fact, as Benn even points out, Israel has enjoyed more then sixteen years of steadfast, dare I say, blind support from the United States. No, what strikes me most is the tone of the statement. Benn’s remark smacks of a petulant child, bemoaning the inequity that Jimmy got a chocolate, while little Tommy didn’t. If that sounds overly harsh, so be it. This column for me gets at the heart of the great underlying threat to meaningful and lasting peace in the Middle East: pride.

Benn’s single comment suggests some great disrespect has been done because Obama hasn’t gone to Tel Aviv and spoken directly to the Israeli people. This seems wildly over blown for the reasons I mentioned above. It was a speech aimed at the second largest religious group in the world. Perhaps just by their sheer numbers, they deserve a speech sooner then the 7.4 million Israelis.

I have latched on to this particular comment, but by no means are Israel’s Palestinian counterparts free from the same charge. This underlying pride, buttressed by opposing views of what God wants, creates an unworkable situation. This perceived slight could be mentioned in a conference room as a reason to not negotiate. We need serious men and women at the table and quite honestly I don’t see any serious men or women in Israel and Palestine right now.

I see a whole bunch of people so focused on their own pride that they cannot and will not work to find common ground. The best possible solution for peace in the Middle East has become increasingly evident in the past decade, but like healthcare reform it requires the right combination of timing and men and women of selfless, humble character to subvert their ruinous pride to find pragmatic, lasting solutions.


Colin said...

More fundamentally, why is Israel looking to Washington? Why are the Arabs? Why should a foreign capital thousands of miles away place such a decisive role? Why is this in our national interest? Why is it our job to solve this age old ethnic conflict?

Ben said...

Well, it's not an age old ethnic conflict - the state of Israel was formed in 1948 and the conlfict - one over land - began in the late 19th Century and came to a head during the 1930s.

While a conflict between two peoples over land may in many cases not implicate our national interest, this one clearly does. Rightly or wrongly the Arab world (and the Muslim world more broadly) identify the United States with Israel. To many, our two states are one in the same. Though I would argue that it has been in our national interest since the formation of the state of Israel to settle the dispute, that anger at Israel (and through it, the US) has served as a recruiting boon for Al Qaeda and others is reason enough that the matter ought be settled.

Why is Israel looking to Washington? Well, the US is Israel's greatest sponsor - the US has provided billions of dollars of economic development and foreign military assistance to Israel. The US has also provided Israel with diplomatic cover for years.

Why do the Arabs look to Washington? The US is the last superpower, the only power with serious leverage over the Israelis, and there is probably a misbegotten sense of trust in the United States because the United States was not a colonial power in the Middle East.

Why does Washington play a decisive role? Well, it probably shouldn't, but it does.

Heather said...

Bravo, Jason! While I reserve the "petulant child" title for Kim Jong Il, there is a whole lot of sandbox squabbling going on here. What, Bob Gates AND James Jones aren't enough for the Israelis, they need the big cheese himself? Hillary Clinton's suggestion of a "defense umbrella" doesn't demonstrate enough of US committment to the region for their liking?
Statements such as Benn's attempt to turn Obama into just another pawn in a 2000 year old war. This is indeed pride, along with a PR competition, with no clear positive outcome. It reminds me of high school cliques, when all the girls wanted the attentions of the high school quarterback. If they want to play that popularity contest and get on Obama's good side then put your money where your mouth is, Tel Aviv: stop settlements in the West Bank, return to negotiations for a two-state agreement, and stop talking like you're going to bomb Tehran tomorrow (thanks for the offer, but it's counterproductive at this point).

Colin said...

Well, if you agree that it shouldn't play a decisive role then there is a simple way to change that -- stop playing a decisive role. It seems that the argument in favor of interventionism is almost tautological.

I understood supporting Israel for much of its history when it was a new state that its neighbors, who were clients of the Soviets, kept invading. But Israel now has the most fearsome military in the region as well as the most dynamic economy. Shouldn't policy change to reflect these changed realities?

Seems to me that we should cut off all aid to both the Israelis and Arab thugocracies like Egypt and force them to settle matters on their own. If both sides seek the good offices of a foreign power to conduct negotiations, well, Switzerland is open for business.