President Obama covered a lot of ground in his ground-breaking speech in Cairo last week. Most observers give him high marks for the cosmetic aspects of the address (quoting the Talmud, the Koran and the New Testament of the Bible – all on the subject of peace – was a clear and easy way to score points with everyone).
In terms of substance, just about everyone was probably unsettled both by things he said and things he didn’t say. For example, on the subject of a continued U.S. military presence in the region, he implicitly verified that he will maintain the military campaign against al Qaeda, claiming a right to protect unspecified “American interests.” And he did not reject the continued use of prison camps (principally Bagram in Afghanistan) for purposes of “enhanced interrogation” and open-ended detention.
But whatever restiveness still exists in the Arab world is probably pure equanimity compared to what is probably being felt in certain parts of Israel. In particular, the newly-elected government of Benjamin Netanyahu may be especially unsettled because Obama sent a clear, if veiled message to it that said, effectively, “long-cherished friendship notwithstanding, we expect you to do right by the Palestinians.”
That expectation should become a demand in the behind-the-scenes meetings that may already be underway between Obama’s envoy to the region, George Mitchell, and the Netanyahu administration. It will certainly include a plan to dismantle the settlements in the lands that are rightfully Palestinian territory. It will also, inevitably, include a new insistence that Jerusalem be divided and that holy shrines (the final hang-up Bill Clinton encountered in his last-ditch efforts at a permanent solution at the end of his administration) be sacrificed.
In this respect, and quite apart from anything his speech imparted to non-Israeli ears, Obama’s remarks were long overdue. The United States has been allowing Israel free rein for far too long, to the detriment of U.S. and, in truth, Israeli interests for long-term security.
I first broached this subject over 11 years ago, in a column I wrote in January of 1998. The views I expressed then are far less radical now. Here is part of what I wrote in that column, which was occasioned by the sentencing to a life in prison of the master-mind of the first World Trade Center bombing.
Ramzi Ahmed Yousef was the mastermind in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six and injured hundreds.
Before his sentencing, Yousef made a lengthy statement. Acknowledging that he is a terrorist and “proud of it,” he went on to decry the United States for its support of Israel and its use of terrorism against “children and elderly people.” He was referring to the U.S.-led embargo against Iraq, but his anger is due more generally to the anti-Arab posture which the U.S. is perceived as having by many in the Middle East.
. . .
In fact, Yousef’s statement reveals a hostility which is nothing less than scary, because, most assuredly, there are others, many others, prepared to pick up his cause and, even more foreboding, to seek vengeance for his imprisonment.
All of which leads me to raise this question: Is it time for the United States to redefine its interests in the Middle East?
Israel celebrates its 50th anniversary as an independent nation this year, and for that entire period, the U.S. has been its principal benefactor. Surrounded by Arab and Islamic states and with an indigenous population of Palestinians who believe their land was taken from them, Israel benefitted greatly from early U.S. support, purchasing vast amounts of military hardware while enjoying the protection of its superpower ally.
In 1967, Israel crushed its neighbors in the 6-day war, taking over much Arab land in the process. Again in 1973, the tiny country overcame a surprise attack and vanquished its foes. The tide had clearly turned. Israel was now the pre-eminent military power in the region.
In the quarter of a century which has passed since the ’73 war, Israel has made peace with Egypt and, more recently, Jordan, and now even Yasser Arafat has become a “partner for peace,” thereby eliminating a constant threat to Israel’s security.
But the Israeli government, reflecting the sharp division of the Israeli people, has not always acted as if peace was its principal concern. In fact, as the siege of Beirut a decade ago and the current policies of Benjamin Netanyahu suggest, there are many in Israel who consider peace a threat to their security. Netanyahu’s belligerent statements to the effect that he will renege on the ’93 peace accords with Arafat raise serious concerns for the future of the region.
The time has come for the United States to make plain to the entire world that we favor not one side but one cause, and that cause is peace. The first step would be a clear repudiation of Netanyahu’s refusal to allow the establishment of a Palestinian homeland. As Abba Eban, Israel’s former foreign minister, wrote recently, opposition to an Arab state in the West Bank “constitutes a major obstacle to regional peace.”
The Clinton administration should get behind that thought quickly, publicly and loudly. Forget the diplomatic signals. It is time to get on the right side of history. We should declare clearly that we respect the rights of everyone in the region, and we should act accordingly.
The bottom line is this: If madmen like Ramzi Ahmed Yousef are to cease being a threat to our welfare, we need to convince the mainstream of the Arab world that we are as much their friends as we are Israel’s.
In the years since I offered those thoughts, much of what I feared has come to pass. The failure to secure a homeland for the millions of Palestinians living in Israeli poverty continues to bedevil U.S. efforts to defeat Islamic terrorism. It gives al Qaeda and the militants in Iran a ready-made justification for their anti-American fanaticism.
Barack Obama appears to realize this fact. Hopefully, his speech last week is evidence that he intends to redefine his country’s relationship with Israel.