Barack Obama has promised to give a speech on his Middle East policies in the coming weeks and present his updated approach to an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The assassination of Osama bin Laden gives Obama new credibility and increases expectations of him at a time when positions in the Middle East are becoming more extreme. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is reconciling with Hamas, the Israeli right is removing the mask of political correctness and is calling for the annexation of the West Bank to Israel. The parties are raising the stakes, challenging the new gun-slinger Obama to decide between them.
So the president will give a speech, but what will he say? Ardent leftists will see an opportunity here to fulfill their dream. They will call on Obama to present Israel with an ultimatum: Get out of the territories or be punished with the end of the "special relationship" with the United States, with the severing of aid and an international boycott. The man who unflinchingly took out the leader of Al-Qaida is now supposed to take on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: to call him to the White House, present him with an American ultimatum and make clear that there is no room for discussion or objections; to get Netanyahu to say either yes or no and bear the consequences.
That is a fine fantasy, but it is cut off from political reality. Netanyahu cannot be subdued with a 40-minute commando raid, but only with a long-term political confrontation. Obama, who is running for a second term, has no patience for Israel and its supporters. Even if the president dreams about getting Israel out of the territories and establishing Palestine on the ruins of the settlements in the West Bank, he cannot make his dream come true by threatening Netanyahu. Not now.
The "peace industry" people have suggested another approach to Obama, straight from the warehouse of cliches of the endless peace process: Present a detailed peace plan that will solve all the problems. Jerusalem? Refugees? Borders? Security? Don't worry, Barack has the answer. Pack up a few settlements here, move a few refugees there, invent a way to control the Temple Mount, throw a few security bones to Israel, and you'll have justified the Nobel Peace Prize you received as a down payment before there was anything to show for it.
There are two problems with this approach. The public gets bogged down in the details, and the leaders depend on them to kill the idea with answers of "yes, but." That is how the Clinton and Saudi plans were neutralized over the past decade. That is what will happen to Obama, too.
Instead of falling into these traps, Obama needs to focus on what he does best: Marketing complicated messages in easy-to-understand packages.That is how he won the presidency with the message of "change," which everyone could understand.
He should now hone in on a new message: "freedom." Freedom from tyranny, freedom from occupation and freedom from terror. The aspiration to freedom links protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square with Palestinians waiting endlessly at checkpoints and with Israelis afraid of rockets falling on their homes and suicide bombers in their streets. Freedom represents the essence of America, the vision of its founders and its foreign policy. And more than any other president, Obama, in his personality and his biography, expresses that message. When he talks about freedom, people will believe him.
Instead of giving tasks to Netanyahu and Abbas, who will just run away from responsibility and blame each other, Obama should make clear to the people of the Middle East what the values are that America represents. Concentrated in one word, simply, "freedom." That is the only way he will be able to mobilize public opinion for change and generate it from below. The Arabs need to be convinced that Obama will give them human rights, dignity and freedom from oppression. The Israelis need to believe that Obama will stand by them in the face of determined enemies like Iran, in the same resolute way he did with bin Laden.
So far, Obama has had difficulty in persuading the people on both sides to trust him. He is perceived as a weak politician who is hesitant and distant and has mainly made wrong decisions. The assassination near Islamabad has given him a new opportunity to reboot his Middle East policy. It would be a pity to miss it because of political fantasies that can never come true, or theoretical models created by diplomats and lawyers that have repeatedly failed in the past.
Freedom is the message. If he focuses closely on it, he will look like a leader and may even succeed where his predecessors failed, by trapping public enemy number 1, who slipped out of their hands.
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