By Ernest Corea* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis
WASHINGTON DC (IDN) – The party has ended, and the hubbub of nice sounding words and phrases has receded into personal and institutional memory. There are other issues calling for urgent attention, including the dangerous war talk from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, better known as North Korea.)
For all that, President Barack Obama’s March 2013 visit to the Middle East was, say those who were on the spot, nice while it lasted. Even the rockets fired by Hamas operatives from beleaguered Gaza into Israel and carefully directed not to create excessive damage during Obama’s visit failed to spoil the mood.
Obama, on his first official visit abroad during his second term and on his first visit to Israel as president, regularly exhibited his charming, trademark smile, wisecracked his way among diverse audiences, threw in phrases from the local language, and clearly had a good time.
He visited key points on the established tourist circuit, paying his respects at the resting places of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, and that of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. Unfortunately, however, he avoided the resting place of the Palestinians’ iconic leader Yasser Arafat who had committed himself to peace while clasping the hand of friendship offered by Rabin in a White House ceremony managed by President Bill Clinton. That was in September 1993.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wiped the scowl off his face and replaced it with a smile. Netanyahu and Obama appeared to have traded mutual contempt for mutual understanding. Obama went so far as to suggest that the apparent dissension between them in the past was no more than play acting. Palestinian President Abbas and Obama, picking up the mood, made no great show of conflicting perspectives, although these are not insubstantial.
All very agreeable, no doubt, but then, pitch perfect PR (public relations) does not necessarily create results – not directly, anyway, and in many cases not until months later, if the PR does produce results at all.
The only real “achievement” that Obama brought back with him to the White House was a recreation of good relations between Turkey and Israel. Readers will recall that these were disrupted in (YEAR) when the Israelis launched a bloody attack on a small Turkish flotilla carrying essential humanitarian supplies to Palestinians.
Nine Turkish nationals were killed in the attack on the boat Mavi Marma. The lethal Israel attack caused a rift between the two countries and a temporary suspension of diplomatic relations. The ambassador of each country in the other’s capital was called home, a stiff but violence-free gesture of separation. For Israel, this was a tragic loss of friendship from perhaps the only approachable nation in the region.
The rift ended when Netanyahu telephoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan while Obama was in Israel. Israeli officials reported that Netanyahu said his Government regretted the disruption of relations and offered to pay Turkey compensation. For the losses sustained in Israel’s act of aggression
They agreed that the ambassadors of the two nations would return to their posts. In a continuing effort at togetherness, officials from both countries are expected to meet early in April for bilateral discussions on compensation.
Israeli officials claimed that Obama had not exerted pressure on them but had suggested that it was time for reconciliation between two US allies in the same region.
Focus on Israel
Obama had a valid point, but the Turkey-Israel reunion did nothing to revive the “peace process.” Observers expecting Obama to announce some new initiative – even something as simple as a naming a new, high powered go-between acceptable to both sides – were disappointed. They should not have been.
Throughout the run-up to Obama’s Middle East sojourn, his aides took great pains to lower expectations. As the visit went on, about the best that optimists hoped that Turkey might be able to influence both Israelis and Palestinians to resume negotiations at some later date. Don’t bet your lunch money on that.
Within the region, and particularly among those directly affected by the colonial occupation of Palestinian territory, the absence of a direct effort to re-start the “peace process” would have been noted with some dismay. A street vendor was quoted in the public media as saying as saying: “There was no difference between this visit and visits by other foreign politicians. They come, they talk, and they leave. Nothing happens.”
Obama’s visit was unmistakably Israeli-centric. Visits by a head of state or government to a single state or country are not unknown, but given the character of Israeli-Palestinians relations, a lone visit to Israel would have served to confirm the notion that the US Government is heavily weighted towards Israel. So, a stopover in the West Bank was thrown in for “balance,” and a drop by in Jordan was included in the itinerary.
Obama did not mention what had up to now been an article of faith with him and the Palestinians as well: the request to Israel that it should suspend its illegal settlement building program on occupied Palestinian territory. The most his audiences would hear from him is that settlements do not help peace. So?
At the end of the visit, there were no “conversions” that Obama could report to audiences at home and abroad eagerly awaiting developments. . Settlement building continues, and Abbas did not give up his right to take perceived Israeli transgressions to the International Criminal Court located at The Hague.
Basis for Peace
Obama did, however, elucidate a number of key principles that should provide the basis for momentum towards peace. Here is what he said in his own words:
“First, peace is necessary. You can be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future. Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.”
“Second, peace is just… The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”
“Which leads to my third point: peace is possible… Now is the time for the Arab World to take steps toward normalized relations with Israel. Meanwhile, Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state, and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security. Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable– that real borders will have to be drawn.”
·”Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.”
Moving Beyond Words
Much as Obama’s encapsulation of essentials strikes the outside analyst as a solid basis on which to start rebuilding peace, reactions to what he said have been uneven. Two comments serve to demonstrate the point.
Right-wing Knesset member Miri Regev said that Obama’s speech was “offensive to Netanyahu…I was surprised by his words about a Palestinian state, that he didn’t mention the word ‘Jerusalem’ and that he said, ‘Leaders must bring peace,’ as if Netanyahu doesn’t want peace.”
A very different response came from Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a pro-peace Jewish organisation headquartered in Washington, who described Obama’s speech containing the fundamentals required for peace as “the most powerful moment the region has seen in many years.”
The speech containing Obama’s fundamentals will remain a minor historical moment, defined only by words, unless words grow into deeds.
This will not happen by magic. Much planning and sustained persuasion will be required to bring about the transformation. It will have to be led by a skilled international mediator with the authority, forthrightness and strategic wisdom that, for instance, Secretary of State James Baker demonstrated in his dealings with leaders on both sides of the divide. There’s no harm hoping.
*The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon ‘Daily News’ and the Ceylon ‘Observer’, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore ‘Straits Times’. He is Global Editor of and Editorial Adviser to IDN-InDepthNews as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council. [IDN-InDepthNews – April 2, 2013]
Picture: President Barack Obama pauses as the national anthem of the United States is played during the official arrival ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 20, 2013. | Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
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