Who Is More Naive – Michael Oren or Barack Obama?

Oren is accusing Obama of being naive and detached, but it's the former Israeli envoy who claims West Bank Palestinians don't have it so bad.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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A protester waves a Palestinian flag as Israeli border policemen watch over a section of the separation barrier. Bilin, June 13, 2014.
A protester waves a Palestinian flag as Israeli border policemen watch over a section of the separation barrier. Bilin, June 13, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

When historians look back at Barack Obama’s policies toward the Middle East, writes former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, they “might fault him for being naive and detached from a complex and increasingly lethal reality.”

Naive and detached – the standard epithets that Israelis hurl at Americans less hawkish than themselves. But let’s turn the lens around. When it comes to Palestinians, who is more naive and detached – Obama or Oren?

Let’s start with a few quotes from Oren’s recent media blitz. In a recent interview at New York’s 92nd Street Y, Oren declared that American Jews must oppose an Iran deal that “everybody in the Knesset agrees is emphatically bad.”

Everybody? The members of the Joint Arab List, who were elected on a platform calling “for nuclear disarmament in the Middle East, including Israel,” don’t think Obama’s nuclear diplomacy is too soft on Iran. They think it’s too soft on Israel, whose hundreds of nuclear weapons they consider as grave a threat to regional peace as Iran’s nuclear program. With a single phrase, Oren makes them disappear.

Why does Oren’s comment matter? Because it shows how detached he is from Palestinians. If naivete means not understanding reality as others experience it, then few words better describe Oren’s relationship to the people with whom Israeli Jews share the land.

Let’s take another example. In an interview with the Jewish Journal’s Shmuel Rosner, Oren recently called Israel “one of the few democracies in the world that have never known a second of non-democratic governance.” This statement makes sense only if Palestinians didn't exist. If they do, the overwhelming majority of Israel’s Palestinian citizens lived under military law until 1966. And to this day, millions of West Bank Palestinians live under Israeli control but lack citizenship and the right to vote for the government that dominates their existence. In other words, they’ve been living under “non-democratic governance” every second of their lives.

But these factual errors only hint at Oren’s true detachment. His deepest naivete stems from his assumption that Israel can maintain the status quo indefinitely because Palestinians will submit indefinitely to their lack of basic rights.

Oren rests this contention on two assumptions. The first is that Palestinians don’t have it so bad. In the West Bank, he wrote in February, “More than 90% of the Palestinian population enjoys de facto sovereignty. Israeli soldiers don’t patrol the major Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Jericho and Bethlehem, and are largely absent from other towns.”

De facto sovereignty? West Bank Palestinians live as permanent non-citizens under military law. The government of Israel – a government for which they cannot vote – controls the air space above them, the borders around them and the natural resources below. They are crammed into an archipelago of cities and towns, which cannot expand because Israel controls virtually all the land in between, land it doles out to settlers who, unlike Palestinians, enjoy full citizenship rights.

Yes, Israeli soldiers don’t generally patrol Palestinian cities. But that’s only because Israel subcontracts those duties to the Palestinian Authority. The minute the PA stopped policing Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin to Israel’s satisfaction, Israel would once again begin doing so itself.

In his claim that West Bank Palestinians don’t have it so bad, Oren is echoing his former boss, Benjamin Netanyahu, who, in his 2000 book "A Durable Peace," called Israel’s occupation “a liberal policy aimed at radically improving the lives of the Arabs.” The implication is that because West Bank Palestinians find their lot tolerable (Oren also offers suggestions for improving Palestinian circumstances without granting Palestinians rights), Israel can maintain its military occupation indefinitely. Palestinians will submit because submission is not so bad.

The second assumption is that Palestinians will submit because if they don’t, Israel will respond with overwhelming force. This too echoes Netanyahu. “I am often asked: Would the Palestinian Arabs accept autonomy,” Netanyahu wrote in 1994. “My answer is that they would accept it if they knew Israel wouldn’t give them an independent state.” (His position has changed remarkably little since then). In "A Durable Peace," Netanyahu – echoing his hero Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s famous 1923 essay, “The Iron Wall” – writes that, “The [Palestinian] Arabs, like other people, will not bang their heads against a ‘stone wall’ forever.”

For Netanyahu and Oren, this is what passes for realism: Pretend that Palestinians will be happy living under occupation, and bludgeon into submission those who aren’t. It’s the same kind of “realism” that people throughout history have used to justify denying others basic rights. And it rests on the contention that the oppressed will accept forms of servitude that we never would, either because their aspirations are lower or because their spirits can be more easily crushed.

Barack Obama has made plenty of mistakes in the Middle East. But he starts with the assumption – and perhaps it does have something to do with the fact that he’s a black man with a Muslim father who spent part of his youth in Indonesia – that Palestinian aspirations are not so different from Jewish ones. And that as a result, Israel is more likely to enjoy true security and true peace by granting Palestinians citizenship in a state of their own than by holding them indefinitely under conditions that Michael Oren would not for one day accept were they imposed upon him.

Whose view is more naive and detached? Once you admit Palestinians into the conversation, it’s not even close.

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