There are many people, gifted with rare intelligence and tolerance for humankind, who, when addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, run off the rails.
This week, it was the turn of former American Jewish Congress national director Henry Siegman. Noting opinion polls showing that a bare six to eight percent of the Israeli public supports Barack Obama, Siegman concludes that the dislike for Obama is a reflection not of the president's policies, but of something essential - and fundamentally defective - in the Israeli people itself:
"The Israeli reaction to serious peacemaking efforts is nothing less than pathological," Siegman writes, calling it "the consequence of an inability to adjust to the Jewish people's reentry into history with a state of their own following 2,000 years of powerlessness and victimhood."
He concedes that polls show that a clear majority of Israelis favor a two-state solution, and thus, Palestinian statehood. But he argues that, while they insist that they much prefer peace, if put to the test, Israelis will prove to be liars, and opt for occupation. "Israel's public never tires of proclaiming to pollsters its aspiration for peace and its support of a two-state solution." Nonetheless, "the reason for this unprecedented Israeli hostility toward an American president is a fear that President Obama is serious about ending Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza."
Siegman's thesis makes no room for the possibility that the administration may have made more major mistakes in handling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, than it has made in any other primary policy sphere.
There is no allowance for the sense that when Barack Obama made an early priority of his presidency a high profile visit to Cairo, its centerpiece an extended address to the Muslim world, a subsequent personal appeal to Israelis might have helped him advance his peacemaking goals.
There is no consideration of the possibility that the administration failed in doing requisite preparation with Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak prior to dropping on Israel the bomb of a blanket settlement freeze demand - which might have been well-received by the Israeli public, had it been accompanied by gestures on the Palestinian or wider Arab side. As it was, rumors of normalization moves were humiliatingly waved away by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, who wrote that a settlement freeze, even if agreed to by Israel, fell far, far short of his key nation's minimum preconditions for any steps toward relations with Israel.
Demanding not a freeze but total removal of all existing settlements as a mere initial precondition, the prince states that any gestures will have to wait until the return to Arab hands of the West Bank, the Golan, and Shabaa Farms in Lebanon. "For Saudis to take steps toward diplomatic normalization before this land is returned to its rightful owners would undermine international law and turn a blind eye to immorality."
But what should any of that matter to Henry Siegman? From the tone of his arguments, he belongs to the school of thought which suggests that hating Israelis is a form of working for peace.
So willing is Siegman to disavow any legitimate feelings on the part of Israelis, that he suggests that that their worst fears - of Iran, of rocket attacks, of world isolation and abandonment - not only are baseless, but are also a source of consolation:
"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's message that the whole world is against Israel and that Israelis are at risk of another Holocaust - a fear he invoked repeatedly during his address in September at the United Nations General Assembly in order to discredit Judge Richard Goldstone's Gaza fact-finding report is unfortunately still a more comforting message for too many Israelis."
Siegman doesn't merely think that Israelis are mistaken. He loathes them. In his reading, they are venal, deceitful, the source of the conflict and the obstruction to its solution. In Siegman's reading "the conflict continues because U.S. presidents ... have accommodated a pathology that can only be cured by its defiance."
It may be argued that Israel has much more to fear from people who think like Henry Siegman, than from Richard Goldstone. A close reading of the Goldstone report, and an open hearing of his views, as in this interview with Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, shows that Justice Goldstone cares a great deal about Israelis and the direction in which their country is headed.
Meanwhile, given Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's opaque, work-in-progress assessment of current Israeli policy as an unprecedented restriction on settlement, but far short of what the administration would like, it should surprise no one in Washington if the White House has now managed simultaneously to alienate Israel's left, right, and center.
For Israel's sake, for the Palestinians' sake, and for the good of his presidency, the administration must radically reassess its approach to the Mideast conflict.
The fears of Israelis are real. The grievances of the Palestinians are just. If both peoples have one trait in common, it is that they cannot be bludgeoned, bribed, or sweet-talked into supporting a policy which favors only side.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are nothing if not good students. It is time to go back and hit the books. If they can broker a package deal which addresses the most critical needs of the Palestinians (including fostering Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, furthering PA security and solcial welfare responsibilities, easing the Gaza siege, and curbing settlement) as well as providing something Israelis can reasonably view as an advance over their current situation (such as making good on hopes for Muslim-world normalization measures), they have a chance of success.
If not, it is time to leave the people here who hate one another to themselves. And to Henry Siegman. In a place where dignity is everything, there is a certain honor to be gained in recognizing that you tried your best, but that peace will have to wait for a time when Israelis are less preoccupied with hating one another other, and Palestinians, the same.
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