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MIDEAST: Move On From Conventional Wisdom

Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Jan 21 2009 (IPS) - In his inauguration address Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama made no direct reference to Israel’s three-week campaign in Gaza; nor did he mention the urgency of addressing the old bugbear of international relations – how successfully to forge a Palestinian-Israel peace.

But he most definitely spoke out against the thrust of his predecessor’s forceful Middle East policy: “Our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please… our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause,” said the new incumbent in the White House.

In one part of Israel, his message did not fall on deaf ears. The liberal Haaretz internalises the universal Obama message. In a front-page editorial, the paper writes: “Precisely at a time when Israel is drunk on power after its operation in Gaza, we should listen to Obama’s sober words.” That goes against the grain of a growing public mood in Israel toughened by the war.

But, that should not deter the President from making his position clear.

Conventional wisdom indeed dictates a new U.S. president doesn’t plunge headlong into Middle East peace-making. And, conventional wisdom dictates a new president waits for the dust of war to settle before trying to resolve a conflict that has eluded U.S. peace-makers for more than six decades.

But, in just 20 days, Israelis vote to decide their post-war direction and their nation’s place in the region. Conventional wisdom also dictates that you don’t interfere in the elections of other states – definitely not of friendly states.

And, conventional wisdom dictates a U.S. leader will only succeed in promoting a durable peace if he assumes the role of honest broker.

Identifying with the plight of people on one side is all too easy. In the tragedy that is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict you soon land up identifying with the pain of the other side. You end up solving nothing.

This is no time to be bogged down in justifications over Israel’s right to defend its Gaza border while ignoring it’s still an occupying power in the West Bank.

Equally, this is no time to be bogged down by intimidating public outrage about the tragic consequences of the war on the Palestinians of Gaza, and thus to let the Arab world off the hook of its commitment to the Arab League peace initiative for a comprehensive settlement.

Barack Obama fought his way into the White House precisely by eschewing conventional wisdom. This is no time for him to stray onto well-beaten paths.

Timing is of the essence, says conventional wisdom. Context is more important.

The Gaza war was about the legitimacy of war in self-defence, of rebuilding deterrence, of a state defending its borders. It was a war against Hamas, a war about the future of Gaza. But it is now also about the need to define Israel’s legitimate borders. As a mirror image, it was a war about the legitimacy of the principle of Palestinians resisting occupation; it is now also about the need to define Palestine’s legitimate borders.

For decades, conventional wisdom has anchored demands for the end of the Israeli occupation on moral grounds. It’s still the case.

One of Israel’s foremost moral voices, the renowned novelist, David Grossman, echoed the sentiment of the Obama inaugural speech: “There are those who have convinced us that the Arabs understand only force, and therefore that is the only language we can use in our dealings with them….We must speak to the Palestinians: That is the most important conclusion from the most recent round of bloodshed.”

Grossman misses what should be President Obama’s central argument to the Israeli people. The problem with would-be peace-makers through the years is that they have never challenged the Israeli people to ask themselves not what they would be giving up by getting out of the occupied territories, but what they would be gaining from giving them up.

President Obama can argue that Gaza now, as Lebanon two years ago, has proven that holding territory is not ground for enhancing Israel’s national security. Deterrence is, he should tell Israelis: ‘With the consent of the international community, you have successfully deterred your enemies – Hizbullah, and now Hamas – from within your own borders’.

As they prepare for their Feb. 10 poll, President Obama should talk tough to Israelis. But, to be effective, he needs to talk tough like them – get them to recognise that giving up the occupation is not so much a question of Palestinian rights, it is first and foremost about serving their own fundamental national interests, about buttressing Israel’s security. And, even were the outcome of an Israeli withdrawal to permanent and legitimate borders fall short of peace, the U.S., he should tell them, would be prepared to underwrite Israel’s security with iron-clad guarantees.

This is the moment, and these are the circumstances, for Barack Obama again to defy conventional wisdom.

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