The swearing-in of Barack Obama as 44th president of the United States takes me back to another presidential ceremony, one that moved millions of people, especially Israelis and Palestinians, whose war-torn hearts were filled with hope for better days. The ceremony on the lawn of the White House more than 15 years ago was my first assignment as Haaretz correspondent to Washington. The beads of perspiration mixed with tears when, with an embarrassed look, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, briefly hesitating, shook the hand of Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat. President Bill Clinton, who had arrived at the White House less than nine months before the signing of the Oslo Accords, looked on with a face that glowed with joy and satisfaction.
Clinton shone onto the Middle Eastern skies at a time when the Israeli right, headed by Yitzhak Shamir, had sunk deep into the opposition, giving way to the "peace camp." Less than 16 years later, a leader of the same rightist camp is making a political comeback on the ruins of the homes of hundreds of dead Palestinian children. According to the polls, Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to be the first Israeli to meet Obama in the White House. During Netanyahu's first term in office, in 1996-99, his neo-conservative worldview led him to clash with the previous Democratic president. That occurred as Clinton's ambition to push forth the Oslo process met Netanyahu's ambition to bring it to an end.
Obama is surrounded by Jewish advisers who are very familiar with Israeli tricks and stalling tactics, especially when it comes to the settlements (have we mentioned "natural growth" yet?), but they would still want the new president to adopt the tradition of the "special relationship" with the Jewish state. Obama, however, has also been exposed to the school of thought, existing in both the administration and the American think tanks, that argues that the excessive closeness between the U.S. and Israel undermines America's strategic interests in the Arab world.
Brent Scowcroft, one of the shapers of foreign policy under President George H.W. Bush, and according to Time magazine, a strong influence on Obama, has called for a fundamental restructuring of American policy in the Middle East. Scowcroft, who was the boss of the current (and incoming) defense secretary Robert Gates, and a friend of the new national security adviser, James Jones, is proposing that the "special relationship" be adjusted to a "natural relationship." Perhaps such a change would be able to transform celebratory ceremonies into dry agreements.
The signing of the Oslo Accords, in September 1993, was the last time that I had the feeling of "yes we can." I believed that the new government in Jerusalem and the new administration in Washington could, together, bring about a great change. Israelis and Palestinians believed that with the help of an American president who evaded the draft, they would be able to achieve peace. Rabin was murdered by a Jewish assassin; Arafat died; the children of the Oslo generation are killing each other. Unfortunately, Israelis and Palestinians will watch the swearing-in ceremony of Obama with a growing sense of, "No we can't" and "Change: We don't believe in it."
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