Friday, May 20, 2011

Let Loose the Unicorns of Diplomacy

Yesterday, Barack Obama delivered a lengthy speech on the state of the Middle East. Most of the approximately 45 minutes was used to outline the background of the so-called "Arab Spring" and to detail how the US will support those countries that move towards democracy and enhanced individual freedoms. He called for all the very presidential things that a president should call for: women's rights, minority rights, an end to cronyism, nepotism and rule by decree, etc.

And, then he spent five minutes or so on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is, of course as is always the case where the word "Israel" is found, that portion of the speech which dominated the following commentary and headlines (at least in North America).

I believe Obama should have made such a speech. What is happening in the Middle East is incredibly important to the world - whether the end result is good or bad remains to be seen - and the effort to support those potential leaders who are actually interested in assisting arab countries to lurch into the 21st Century should be a priority. It is a positive sign that he is tying aid to actual reform, although it remains to be seen whether that can be accomplished in a region where tribal and family ties stretch back centuries, where nationhood is a much newer concept and where illiteracy, a lack of women's and minority rights and religious zealotry are major obstacles to progress.

And, Obama's call for roughly 1967 borders is nothing particularly new. It is foolishness to expect Israel to dismantle large towns/small cities in the West Bank but it is certainly feasible to swap land in exchange.

This, however, is where he steers horribly wrong and where pundits - as usual - have missed a central point: the potential borders between Israel and a palestinian state are not the problem. By essentially putting that ahead of all other considerations, Obama is saying one of either two things: a) he remains naive about the realities of palestinian politics or b) he sees no solution to other issues so he will try to patch together a palestinian state and carve himself a permanent place in the history books.

In fact, he essentially acknowledged this in his speech by noting the presence of hamas and its policies and the refusal of palestinian leaders (and, by both extension and appearance, the citizenry) to recognize Israel and its right to exist. But, he didn't stress that for what it really is: the determining factor. It is illogical to expect Israel to make peace with a government whose elements are still bent on its eventual destruction and who are state-sponsors of terrorism before they even have a state.

Until the US - regardless of who is president - puts the emphasis where it belongs, there cannot be peace. Borders are easy to create - in fact, the whole Middle East is full of artificial borders that make no sense (the root cause of much of the sectarian violence seen in countries where nationhood clashes with age-old traditions). And, Israel has shown it will make land concessions and uproot citizens in the pursuit of peace - as it did in Gaza, which resulted in the reward of having thousands of rockets lobbed indiscriminately at its populace.

What you cannot create is a peace partner where none exists. By entering into a power-sharing agreement with hamas, the "moderate" Mahmoud Abbas has torpedoed any such hopes in the short-term. It is a child's fantasy to believe the palestinians are seriously committed to a secure peace and, perhaps, in that fantasy, a hero would ride in on his sage and horned equine companion and save the day. The west has long been wide-eyed at every bedtime story the palestinians have concocted. Thus, it is no surprise Obama handed out his scholarly rhetoric empty of any suggestion of a solution to hamas' presence, etc, skimming over it but without interrupting the tale.

The US - and the world community - does have an opportunity to positively affect events in the Middle East and certainly in those countries experiencing political upheaval. That is important. The last thing the world needs is more nations falling under the sway of radical islamic leaders or just overall sectarian violence, and Egypt is already demonstrating the very real possibility of that kind of reaction.

The I/P conflict can wait. Egyptians, Syrians, Tunisians, Libyans, etc. weren't/aren't out in the streets because of the plight of the palestinians. They're fighting for their own futures. The I/P situation is a sideshow. It doesn't need the US's attention and the US's attention would be much better put to use elsewhere.