President-elect Barack Obama told the Chicago Tribune, “I think we’ve got a unique opportunity to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular.” He pledged an “unrelenting” wish to “create a relationship of mutual respect and partnership in countries and with peoples of good will who want their citizens and ours to prosper together.”
Mutual respect is going to be measured by actions, and the American-supplied Israeli military equipment being deployed against Palestinian civilians sends the opposite signal. Obama is getting some high-level advice in this regard: Nobel peace prize winner and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari said in his acceptance speech on Wednesday, “I do hope that the new president of the United States, who will be sworn in next month, will give high priority to the Middle East conflict during his first year in office . . .” underlining that “The tensions and wars in the region have been going on for so long that many have come to believe that the Middle East knot can never be untied – I do not share this belief.”
He said, “All conflicts can be settled and there are no excuses for allowing them to become eternal.”
He added, “If we want to achieve lasting results, we must look at the whole region . . . we simply cannot go on year after year, simply pretending to do something to help the situation in the Middle East. We must also get results.”
He continued, “it is simply intolerable that violent conflicts defy resolution for decades causing immeasurable human suffering and preventing economic and social development” and rejected the notion that religions inevitably cause conflict: “Religions themselves are … peace-loving. They can also be a constructive force in peace-building, and this also applies to the Middle East . . . ”
Richard Falk, the special rapporteur for the UN Rights Council, said Monday that Israel’s ongoing blockade of civilians in the Gaza Strip is a “crime against humanity.”
The seeming inability of many Israelis to see clearly what they are doing to the Palestinian people has been underlined by Avraham Burg in his new book, The Holocaust is Over: We must rise from the Ashes. TPMCafe is conducting a discussion of the book, to which John Mearsheimer, co-author of The Israel Lobby, has contributed an important essay. Mearsheimer analyzes and supports the position that the Israeli obsession with the Holocaust is provoked by the guilt of occupying the Palestinians.
The TPMCafe discussion of this book has more honesty in one place about this issue than I have seen for some time in the American press, and contrasts dramatically and favorably with the mealy-mouthed reviews of Mearsheimer’s own book in the New York Times and elsewhere last year.
Ahtisaari and the TPM reviewers are giving Obama and the Israeli and Palestinian political class excellent advice.
But where I would differ from Ahtisaari is that big architectonic conflicts such as that between the Israelis and Palestinians continue a) because neither side is strong enough to prevail conclusively and b) because the parties to the conflict see benefits in continuing to struggle and disadvantages in concluding it. Ending such big conflicts cannot be accomplished by a mere act of will, but rather requires hard political work– in which the parties are convinced that more can be gained from peace than from fighting.
Those committed to maximalist positions are in a good position to frustrate Obama were he to take Ahtisaari’s advice. Despite the outbreak of clear-sightedness on the part of outgoing PM Ehud Olmert on the end of the Greater Israel dream, the Israeli far right may well form the next government or be in a position to veto peace moves. The Palestinians are deeply divided and neither Israel nor the US seems willing to deal with Hamas, which clearly represents a substantial segment of the Palestinian public– and without which it is unlikely there will be a practical settlement. And the rightwingers in the American Israel Lobbies– in the American Enterprise Institute, AIPAC, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs, the Hudson Institute, and so forth, represent very big capital (including some proportion of 50 percent of the Fortune 500) and cannot be ignored by any president who wants a second term.
Ahtisaari is right. But a mere Nobelist is invisible in the insular American media and political discourse. His speech will not be broadcast on American television and there will be no discussion of it on CNN, Fox or MSNBC. And likely the tragedy will go on unfolding, harming the principals and harming the United States, and ultimately undoing Israel.
If Obama wants to reboot the US image in the region, he has to convince the Muslim world that the US is not complicit in the slow-motion ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians and the crimes against humanity that Falk has decried. It begins with an act of will. But that act of will cannot succeed without the expenditure of political capital and the incurring of substantial risk.