Thursday, June 04, 2009

An honest broker for Israelis and Palestinians

It's often said that in the Bush years the U.S. lost credibility as an even-handed mediator in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. So among the many extraordinary balancings and tensions confronted in Obama's speech to the Muslim world today, it's worth noting that his paired precis of the plights of Israelis and Palestinians was balanced almost literally to the last syllable:
Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

Word count for the first paragraph: 108. For the second: 107. That literally equal allocation was surely not entirely conscious, but parallelism it reflects must be deliberate. Nor is it accidental that grievances are cited for Jews, Muslims and Christians. Evoking the religious groups' suffering picks up on a the speech's central theme: conflicts that go back decades and centuries must be confronted, and that they can be resolved on the basis of values shared by all three religions - and by all civilizations.

Indeed, the speech as a whole was based on those principles, laid out at the beginning: speak the truth, confront tensions openly, resolve them on the basis of shared values. Obama laid out hard truths for every interested party, including Israelis and Palestinians:

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist.

At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society. And just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.

At present, the force behind this semantic even-handedness comes from the Obama administration's unequivocal insistence that Israeli settlement growth must stop. That's the new element in the equation. How the emerging confrontation with the Netanyahu government on this issue plays out will go a long way toward determining how this speech will be viewed in retrospect.

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