Barack Obama's election campaign was the best show in America. In his winning speeches, he half danced, half sang. He lept down airplane steps without holding onto the railing, and slid into the president's office with the same ease he demonstrated in his campaign appearances. America, which has had its share of sour-visaged, ineloquent presidents, was awed by its new incumbent, who immediately set to work on domestic problems - unemployment, the economic crisis and a health insurance revolution. He managed to get through his first 100 days, as he jokingly said, in 72 days, and on the 73rd day, he rested.
He is now in the fifth month of his presidency, and the world is anxiously waiting to see how he will solve global problems and maintain America's position as a world leader. Yet for all his White House activity, Obama has kept his sense of humor and his popular touch. He was filmed killing a pesky fly with a single blow during an interview with CNBC, and when the interviewer asked whether he had indeed slain the insect, Obama invited the camera to zoom in on the fly's body. He plays handball in the Oval Office, speaks on the phone with his legs on the table, is photographed in a chef's apron cooking up a presidential barbecue, and so forth.
In between all this, Obama gave a 55-minute speech to the Islamic world at the University of Cairo, of which seven minutes were devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is not clear why he chose this theatrical manner and this particular venue to speak his piece. But it is even less clear what he hoped to achieve. That the walls of Jericho would come tumbling down? That the pillars of the world would tremble, and the lion and the lamb would lie down together? What did he think - that the settlements are really the heart of the conflict between us and the Palestinians, and not their opposition to Israel's very existence? And while we are on the subject, why did he not mention that they refused to accept the two-thirds of this land that the United Nations allocated them on November 29, 1947, and instead sentenced both us and themselves to decades of bloodshed?
The Prussian military thinker Clausewitz once said that in wartime, when plans clash with execution, reality always wins. The same is true of diplomatic pronouncements and execution. Obama placed his vision on the table and made it clear he is waiting for an answer. But three weeks after his oratory in Cairo, the Arabs have yet to bat an eyelid, because they interpreted Obama's speech as being aimed solely at Israel.
Netanyahu labored over his response like someone suffering from constipation. But in the end, he picked up the gauntlet. In a carefully thought out, well-formulated speech, he got to the heart of the problem: He is willing to recognize a Palestinian state, albeit a demilitarized one, in exchange for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. He thereby essentially recognized the principle of two states for two peoples.
Demilitarization, at this early stage, is not a non-negotiable condition but a topic to be dealt with in the context of security arrangements. The peace negotiations with Egypt resulted in the demilitarization of most of Sinai, and no one died as a result. And the Palestinians could have set their own conditions: For instance, we will recognize the Jewish state if you shut down the nuclear reactor in Dimona. No real agreement can be reached without mutual security arrangements.
But the Palestinian response, contrarian and infuriating as always, came from Saeb Erekat: "Even in 1,000 years, we will not recognize the Jewish state." The mule remains a mule.
Thus, judged by the test of results, Obama's speech proved empty - unless, in the wake of his prose, a comprehensive American plan for ending the conflict is secretly being cooked up. But the dancing president with the well-developed sense of humor and self-confidence had not yet managed to focus fully on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when two blows landed on him: the North Korean threat and, no less serious, the fact that after his conciliatory speech in Cairo, bloody clashes broke out in Iran between the revolution's second generation and the ayatollahs' regime. What is happening in Iran is liable to ignite the entire Middle East. The coals are slowly heating up in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, all of which are keeping a wary eye on the outcome of the uprising in Iran, fearful they will be infected with the same disease. Yet Obama's voice has not been heard.
Obama is a superb performer, but he will be tested not on rhetoric, but on implementation - his ability to stop the spread of radical Islam in our region. And, on a smaller scale, his ability to force the Palestinians to accept the idea of two states for two peoples.
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