Obama’s Cairo speech, friendship with Israel and finding the right balance

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

There will be plenty of commentaries about President Obama’s speech to the Islamic world in Cairo today, and Jewish groups were weighing in even before he finished speaking.  There was lots of meat to chew on, and the Jewish world is going to sate its appetite on the stuff for a long time.

Despite Obama’s strong and unequivocal statement against settlements, it was the first time an Arab and Muslim audience heard a strongly pro-Israel speech from a major leader.

But there was one section of the speech that, to me, spoke volumes about where this administration is heading and which encapsulated an essential contradiction in the response of the Jewish and pro-Israel worlds.

“If we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth,” Obama said in a speech that also rejected the legitimacy of Israeli settlements. “The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.”

That, it seems to me, is going to make a lot of Jewish groups uncomfortable – and  not just those on the far right. The reason: most centrist Jewish leaders, while accepting the idea of an active, U.S.-led peace process, are profoundly uneasy with the actual demands of being an honest broker.

Groups may accept the need for strong U.S. leadership, but in their kishkas they react with dread every time an administration seems to retreat from the symbolism and language of the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel in an attempt to be a more effective mediator.

We accept the idea that Washington needs to be a bridge builder in any peace process, but insist the bridge must start and end with active cheerleading for Israel.

With so many forces lined up against the Jewish state and with other would-be peacemakers firmly and unhelpfully lined up with the other side, we demand that the United States – Israel’s only reliable friend – be an unwavering advocate, and we fail to see the contradiction between that demand and the goal of being an effective honest broker.

That’s why the term “even handedness” has become such a pejorative, and why its use ignites a huge political backlash against anybody who dares utter it.

I believe President Obama supports Israel, that he understands that Israel has made honest efforts (and some mistakes) in pursuit of peace.  I believe he is aware that Palestinian terrorism and ambivalence about accepting Israel’s existence have repeatedly sabotaged U.S. peacemaking efforts. I believe he hopes to maintain that friendship even as he cranks up administration peacemaking efforts.

But I also believe he has come to the conclusion that an America that takes its role as an advocate for Israel more seriously than its role as a mediator will inevitably fail as a peacemaker, and that giving in to domestic political forces that demand endless reaffirmations of our commitment to Israel and an outright rejection of the Palestinian narrative isn’t really consistent with the role he wants to play.

In short, I think he’s serious about being an honest broker. That’s what this speech was all about; that’s a major thrust of his diplomacy in the first 120 days of his administration; that’s why he’s not going to back down on Jewish settlements.

No, I’m not equating Palestinian grievances with Israel’s. I am saying that Obama seems to believe that  genuine mediation and brokering requires the trust of both sides and an openness to their arguments, and a determination not to serve as advocate for one or the other.

Jimmy Carter would make a disastrous Middle East negotiator because he seems to hear the concerns of only the Palestinians and rejects outright the narrative of the Israelis. It works both ways; a president who seems to side with the Palestinians will make it much less likely Israel’s leaders and citizens will be willing to take real risks for peace.

Barack Obama, while friendly to Israel and sympathetic with its problems,  seems determined to carve out a different role for himself.  He has smart Jewish advisers, so he’ll never utter the phrase “even handed,” but he is aiming for a recalibrated balance between the functions of friendship and mediation that will make a lot of Jews uneasy.

Can he find that balance  between remaining Israel’s friend  and buttressing his role as an honest broker who has the respect of both sides? I don’t know. I suspect the Arab and Muslim worlds will demand something more than “fairness,” and that a scared Israel and American Jewish community will be hypersensitive to any hint that friendship is  becoming less important than mediating. There is a risk the shift will end up angering both sides without making much progress in negotiations.

It is true that U.S. friendship and all its symbols are critical in giving Israel the confidence it needs to take risks for peace. It is also true that such symbolism can and in the past has neutralized U.S. credibility with the other side and  contributed to the current stalemate.

Where to draw the balance? How to combine roles in a more effective way? That’s the challenge for this new administration. And it won’t be easy.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.