Sunday, January 31, 2010

Uri Avnery: The Israeli-Palestinian impasse, powerful critique of Obama

From: Sid Shniad

Uri Avnery


The Kangaroo

GEORGE MITCHELL looks like a kangaroo hopping around with an empty pouch.

He hops here and he hops there. Hops to Jerusalem and hops to Ramallah,
Damascus, Beirut, Amman (but, God forbid, not to Gaza, because somebody may
not like it). Hops, hops, but doesn't take anything out of his pouch,
because the pouch is empty.

So why does he do it? After all, he could stay at home, raise roses or play
with his grandchildren.

This compulsive traveling reveals a grain of chutzpah. If he has nothing to
offer, why waste the time of politicians and media people? Why burn airplane
fuel and damage the environment?

THE DECLARED aim of Mitchell is to "get the peace process going again". How?
"Get the two sides to return to the negotiating table".

There is a naïve American belief that all the problems of the world could be
solved if only the parties would sit down at the table and talk. When
reasonable people talk to each other, they will eventually arrive at a

The trouble with this is that the people responsible for the fate of nations
are not, in general, reasonable people. They are politicians with passions
and prejudices and constituencies, who are driven by the mood of the masses.
When one is dealing with a 130-year old conflict, the naïve belief in the
value of talk borders on folly.

Decades of experience indicate that negotiations are useless if one of the
parties is not interested in an agreement. Worse: negotiations can actually
cause damage when one of the parties uses them to waste time while creating
a false impression of progress towards peace.

In our conflict, peace negotiations have become a substitute for peace, a
means to obstruct peace. They are an instrument used by successive Israeli
governments to gain time – time to enlarge the settlements and entrench the

(In an interview with Haaretz published yesterday, Ehud Barak accused the
"left" in general, and Gush Shalom and Peace Now in particular, of not
supporting Netanyahu's call for negotiations. He got close to accusing us of

Anyone who now proposes negotiations "without prior conditions" is
collaborating with the Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman government in a ploy to
sabotage the chances of peace. Indeed, Mitchell has become – perhaps
unwittingly – such a collaborator. When he exerts pressure on Mahmoud Abbas
"to come back to the negotiating table", he is playing the game of
Netanyahu, who presents himself as the great peace-lover. Abbas is being
pictured as a man who has "climbed a high tree and doesn't know how to get
down again". There is no occupation, no ongoing settlement activity, no
Judaization of East Jerusalem. The only problem is to get a ladder. A ladder
for Abbas!

All this for what? What is the kangaroo hopping for? It's all to help Obama,
who is thirsting for a political achievement like a man in the desert
thirsting for water. The start of negotiations, however meaningless, would
be presented as a great diplomatic success.

THE OTHER day, Obama himself made a rare gesture: the President of the
United States of America declared publicly that he had made a mistake and
apologized for it. He admitted that he had not properly understood the
difficulties involved in the restarting of the peace process.

Everybody praised the President. Such a courageous leader! Such nobility!

To which I would add: And such chutzpah!

Here comes the most powerful leader in the world and says: I was wrong. I
did not understand. I have failed. For a whole year I have not achieved any
progress at all towards a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Look
how honest I am! Look how ready I am to admit mistakes!

That is chutzpah. That is chutzpah, because a whole year was lost due to
this "mistake", a whole year in which 1.5 million human beings in Gaza, men,
women and children, have been suffering utter destitution, many of them
without sufficient food, many of them without shelter in the cold and in
rain. A whole year in which more than a hundred Palestinian homes in East
Jerusalem were demolished while new Jewish housing projects sprang up at a
crazy pace. A whole year in which settlements in the West Bank were
enlarged, apartheid roads were built and pogroms, under the "price tag"
slogan, were carried out.

So, with all due respect, Mr. President, the word "mistake" hardly suffices.

The Bible says: "He that covereth his sins shall not prosper; but whoso
confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy" (Proverbs 28:13). Obama
covereth not his "mistake", and that is good. But it is the second half of
the verse that counts: "confesseth and forsaketh". No mercy for one who
"confesseth" but not "forsaketh". You have not hinted with a single word
that you are about to forsake your old ways.

It is chutzpah for another reason, too: You say that you have failed because
you did not properly appreciate the domestic problems of the two leaders,
Netanyahu and Abbas. Netanyahu, you say, has an extreme right-wing
coalition, and Abbas has Hamas.

Sorry, sorry, but what about your own "coalition", which does not allow you
to move an inch in the right direction? What about the two houses of
Congress, which are completely subservient to the pro-Israel lobbies, both
the Jewish and the Christian-Evangelical? What about your fear of your
extreme right, which is supporting our own extreme right? What about your
inability – or unwillingness – to exercise your leadership, invest political
capital in a confrontation with the lobbies and move forwards according to
the real interests of the United States (and Israel) – as did President
Dwight D. Eisenhower in his time, and even, for a short period, Secretary of
State James Baker?

THE TERRIBLE blow dealt to Obama in the Massachusetts by-election has
dumbfounded many people. It has changed the texture of American politics and
is endangering the health system reforms, the jewel in the crown he has put
on his head. It threatens to turn him into a lame duck that may not only
lose the midterm elections this year, but even fail to be reelected less
than three years from now.

Many ask: what happened to the shining candidate who enchanted the entire
United States and mobilized millions of enthusiastic new voters? Where is
the man with a vision who aroused the masses with the battle-cry "Yes, We

How did the inspiring campaigner turn into a so-so president, one who does
not excite anyone? How did the candidate, who always hit exactly the right
note, turn into a president who is unable to touch the hearts of the people?
How did the candidate, who made all the right decisions, turn into a
president who cannot make decisions? How did the anti-Bush turn into

It seems to me that the answers lie in one of the fundamental paradoxes of
the democratic system. I have thought about this many a time while sitting
through boring speeches in the Knesset.

A democratic leader who has a vision and wants to realize it has to pass two
tests: to win an election and to govern a country. If he does not get
elected, he will not have a chance to realize his dream. If he fails in
governing, his election victory loses its meaning.

The trouble is that these two tasks are very different. Indeed, they tend to
contradict each other, because they demand very different talents.

The candidate must make speeches, excite the imagination, make promises and
convince the voters that he is capable of fulfilling them. These talents can
indeed be of help to the ruler – but they do not suffice to enable him to
rule. The ruler must make hard decisions, withstand extreme pressures,
manage a huge apparatus with many contradictory components, convince the
public of his country and the leaders of foreign countries. He cannot
satisfy all sectors of the public and all the interest groups, the way he
tried to do as a candidate.

The most inspiring candidates often turn out to be disastrous heads of
government. They are swept into power by the enthusiasm they evoke in their
voters, and then suddenly find out that their brilliant speeches have no
impact any more – not on the members of their parliament, not on the public,
not on foreign leaders. Their brightest talent has become useless.

I have the impression that Obama's numerous speeches are starting to tire
people and are losing their appeal. When he turns his face from left to
right and from right to left, from one teleprompter to the other, he starts
to look like a mechanical doll. The millions viewing his speeches on TV see
him turning to the left and turning to the right, but never really looking
them in the eyes.

The candidate is an actor on stage playing the role of a leader. After the
elections, when he actually becomes a leader, he can become helpless. The
man who plays Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's play can be a great actor – but
if he were Caesar in real life, he would not have a clue what to do. (When I
put this to an actor, his retort was: "But Caesar himself would not be able
to play Caesar on the stage!")

Barack Obama is no Caesar. Rather he is Hamlet, Prince of America.
Enchanting, attractive, full of good intentions – but feeble and hesitant.
To rule or not to rule, that is the question.

IT IS much too early to announce Obama's political death. Contrary to Mark
Antony, who declares in the play "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him",
I am not yet ready to bury the great hope raised by him.

A year has passed since he entered the White House. A year wasted to a large
extent. Three more years are left until the next elections. True, in the
first year, after such a dramatic victory, it would have been much easier
for him to do things than in the following three years, but Obama can still
recover, draw the necessary conclusions from the experience and manage a

One of the roads there leads through Jerusalem. Obama must keep his kangaroo
tied up at home and take the initiative into his own hands. He must announce
a clear peace program, the one about which there is now a world-wide
consensus (Two states for two peoples, a Palestinian state in all the
occupied territories with its capital in East Jerusalem and the dismantling
of the settlements in Palestinian territory) and call upon the two sides to
adopt it in theory and practice – perhaps by a referendum on both sides.
When the time is ripe, he may come to Jerusalem and address the Israeli
people from the Knesset rostrum with a clear and unequivocal message.

In short: exit Hamlet, enter Julius Caesar.

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