June 16, 2009

Denile River

Even with a night to sleep on it, President Obama still struck the wrong tone on Palestine’s future. Palestinian officials and Arab states warned that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision of two states is a trap, but this caused no change in Obama’s position.

While acknowledging “there were a lot of conditions” placed on a Palestinian state, "overall, I thought that there was positive movement in the prime minister's speech. He acknowledged the need for two states. What we are seeing is at least the possibility that we can restart serious talks.”

Obama may want to hit the pillow for another night.

Stressing the need to continue peace negotiations, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was quoted by the Mena news agency as saying, “I have told him [Netanyahu] loud and clear that the call for recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would complicate matters and abort the chances of peace. I even warned him that this particular call would not be met by a favorable response from Egypt or beyond.”

Beyond are Saudi Arabia, Jordan, even Pakistan, essential states America needs in its quest to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran won't accept Netanyahu's version of Palestine either. Palestinian officials warned that peace talks could break down if he doesn't budge. Losing moderate Arab support would cause an avalanche.

Is it coincidence or the inevitability of Obama’s position that his glorious moment at Cairo University is now being flooded with irony? His response predictably pleased one person - Netanyahu himself.

“The American response was positive,” Netanyahu told his Likud Party. “I would be misleading you to say that the way has been cleared, but our situation is better today than before.”

Because everyone was so worried about the relationship between America and Israel. Netanyahu seems clueless of his actions, adding yet another problem.

“I'm disappointed because I took a step, not an easy step,” he responded when asked about widespread Muslim disapproval. “I think this is an equitable formula for peace. It's one that enjoys enormous unity in the in the Israeli public and I think among Israel's friends and supporters abroad and the supporters of peace abroad.”

Netanyahu was referring to a Haaretz poll that revealed a 16% approval jump overnight, from 28% to 44%. The Haaretz noted that his speech hit every note: “right-wing rhetoric mixed with the desire for peace, an undivided Jerusalem, opposition to the return of Palestinian refugees, a demand for defensible borders, and the words that made the big headline - a demilitarized Palestinian state.”

Just about every position Palestinians disagree with. Now why would they be disappointed? And how long until they become jaded with Obama? Promoting unity, equality, and justice in Cairo, then returning to Washington to stand behind Israel as the Muslim world once again opposes it feels too familiar. President Obama is walking on dynamite and should tread lighter than he is.

But he went beyond approving Netanyahu by attempting to screen him from valid criticism. “I think any time an Israeli prime minister makes a statement, the immediate reaction tends to be negative on one side,” Obama said. “If the other side is making a statement, often times the reaction is negative in Israel.”

Or maybe the reaction is negative because, as Egypt’s Foreign Ministry stated, “the vision which the Israeli prime minister presented is flawed and lacks many elements.”

Undaunted, American support continued. Israel received a timely defense from an old friend, former president Bill Clinton, who told reporters at the UN, “It's just the beginning, and it's a drama that will have a few more acts.”

Clinton was so bold as to assure Palestinians, “I think on balance you should feel pretty good about it even though the conditions would be completely unacceptable to the Palestinians at the moment.”

Is Netanyahu merely bargaining, setting the bar at its highest and preparing to work down? Muslims must cling to that hope because even Clinton admitted that Netanyahu’s speech will be “a disaster” if his position is concrete. Disaster for Obama too.

Palestinians don’t need time to process Netanyahu’s demands, which have been opposed for decades. Obama must look past settlements; Palestinians want East Jerusalem, Israeli land for Palestinian refugees, rights for Palestinians already inside Israel, an army, and respect. They want the blockade lifted off Gaza.

Unreasonable maybe, but reality, not negative perception.

President Obama should beware. Denying the Palestinian, Egyptian, and greater Muslim response while shielding Israel so soon after his landmark speech is a dangerous river, full of crocodiles, and contradicts the symbolism of Cairo.

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