Washington Post’s Misdiagnosis of Obama's Middle East Failing
by DR. MICHAEL WIDLANSKI
July 19, 2012
Sometimes it is enough to see, not to analyze. The picture in The Washington Post of Barack Obama with Benjamin Netanyahu says it all.
Obama looks like he bit off a huge piece of gefilte fish smothered by extra strong horseradish. He seems torn by the urge to spit and the diplomatic need to swallow.
The Post article under the picture-"Where Obama Failed On Forging Peace In The Middle East"-is quite superfluous, yet full of errors. It recalls the Hebrew grammarian's joke about a two-letter word written with seven errors, only in this case, there are many more words and many more errors.
"Obama's Muslim middle name, former anti-Zionist pastor in Chicago and past friendships with prominent Palestinians had shadowed his presidential campaign," writes Post reporter Scott Wilson. The problem has never been Obama's middle name, but rather his core values.
Barack Obama, by any name, is/was a follower of the anti-Zionist and pseudo-anti-colonialist world view of his mentors Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi, teachers at Columbia University and the University of Chicago who were friendly with Obama.
And it is not that Obama had an anti-Zionist pastor in Chicago that bothers Jews or Israelis as much as it is the sense that Obama really stayed in that church and imbibed the anti-Semitism-tinged Black Liberation Theology thinking of Jeremiah Wright. No one forced him. He felt at home with the ideology.
But ideology is not the only problem with Obama's treatment of the Mideast or The Washington Post's bad analysis of it. It is also a question of historical sense.
Like Professors Said and Khalidi, President Obama (and apparently reporter Scott Wilson) perceives the Middle East largely as a prism framed by "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," hoping that all problems will be solved by focusing on the supposed centrality of the "question of Palestine," as Edward Said repeatedly wrote.
But "Palestine" is a foreign word in both Hebrew and Arabic. It does not appear in the Torah or Quran, while the terms of "Israel" and the "Jews" appear often. Indeed, even in the documents of the United Nations, the word "Palestinians" does not appear until 1970, when the Arab bloc started to use "Palestinians" as a device to attack Israel.
UN Security Council Resolution 242 does not make any mention of "Palestinians" because the three Arab-Israeli wars-1948, 1956 and 1967-had nothing to do with people named "Palestinians" but rather with entities that were states: the set of Arab states Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, etc. versus Israel.
"Palestine" was coined by the Romans and the Greek historian Herodotus who wanted to de-judaize Judea. For example, the Romans divided Judea into Palestina Prima, Palestina Secunda and Palestina Tertia. The British borrowed from the Romans when they named their trust territory, entrusted to them by the League of Nations.
This "Palestine" was supposed to hold a Jewish home and eventually an Arab one. The Jews accepted the formula, and the Arabs never did.
The Arab-Islamic community's unwillingness to accept a non-Arab or non-Islamic presence in its midst was the fundamental reason for the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in that context it was clear that Israel was "David," and the Arab League or the Arab-Islamic network was "Goliath."
So, after three strikes in the wars from 1948-1967, the Arabs slowly moved to casting the conflict as "Israeli-Palestinian" because that changed the "Palestinians" into "David"-and they even threw stones, too.
The problem with this 7,000-word analysis in the July 15th Washington Post is that it is based on ignorance of Middle Eastern religion, history and culture-or worse, deliberate distortion of religion, history and culture.
Most of the conflicts in the Middle East-from Morocco to Persia-have nothing to do with Israel, with Jews or with Palestine. They have a lot more to do with local ideologies and worldviews such as Islam, tribalism and even Pan-Arab nationalism.
Israel has agreed to all kinds of formulas-both Likud and Labor Party governments over the years-but the Arab side has never been willing to accept a "Jewish" state in any configuration. That is the problem.
Israelis have never had problems with Arabs building neighborhoods or villages, and Jews have never objected to Arab "settlements."
Arabs have always rejected the right of Jews to build in the area set aside for them by the League of Nations, basically recognizing the ancient link of the Jews to the land given them by God, according to Jewish and Christian scripture.
Indeed, this right exists even according to the Quran. But whether it is pre-1967 Israel or pre-1948 "Palestine," significant parts of the Arab community have tried to kill the Jewish community.
The fighting did not begin between "Palestinians" and Jews, but between the entire Arab-Islamic community and Jews. The leaders were often from Egypt, from Syria and Iraq, and they cared not a bit about so-called "Palestinian rights," which was a later invention.
The patron saint of the Hamas organization was 'Iz al-Din al-Qassam, a fiery preacher from Syria. The hateful mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini called his newspaper Al-Suriyya al-Janoubiyya: Southern Syria.
So, when Barack Obama and Joe Biden made "Jewish settlements" the key to Middle Eastern peace, it was clear that they were living in an unreal world. Worse, Obama-Biden-Clinton tried to make a high-profile test case out of a 15-year-old housing project in Jerusalem, calling it a "settlement." Wilson referred to this in the Post article in the context of Vice President Biden's trip to Israel in March of 2010: "Israel's Interior Ministry announced the construction of 1,600 new housing units in northern East Jerusalem-a community called Ramat Shlomo-that undermined Mitchell's success at bringing the two sides closer together."
The problem with that comment is that Israel never agreed to stop building in Jerusalem, and it doesn't consider any housing in Jerusalem to be settlements. Plus, what actually happened was that the Ministry approved one of several steps in a process of completing this 15-year-old project. It was Obama and Biden who decided to elevate this by acting as if Israel had somehow betrayed and humiliated them.
Indeed, Obama staked out a position calling for Israel to move back to the 1949 ceasefire lines that are indefensible and a strategic disaster. (Later Obama tried to walk this back, but it was too late.) Obama also demanded a full stop to all Israeli building as a condition for talks. This was more extreme than anything PLO leader Yasser Arafat had demanded. How could the Palestinians demand less than Obama?
The result was that Obama forced Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas (also known by his nickname Abu Mazen) to take an even more extreme position. Even when Prime Minister Netanyahu took the unprecedented step of agreeing to a ten-month freeze, it did not satisfy the PLO and Hamas demands that had been superheated by Obama's ideological passion to squeeze Israel back to the 1949 ceasefire lines.
Indeed, the PLO refused to talk to Israel directly unless it got an approval from the Arab League: this was a reversal of more than 20 years of diplomacy, making Obama a truly transformative president-the man who single-handedly set back Arab-Israeli peace talks by a quarter century. Quite a transformation.
Like Obama, the Post's Scott Wilson also sets up the phony comparison of the Holocaust for Jews and the 1948 loss for the Arabs, when he wrote:
"But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-haunted by the Holocaust and the perceived injustice of a Palestinian land lost in war-resisted the natural give-and-take of negotiation that Obama counted on."
This is such an inaccurate comparison-both by Wilson and by Obama-that one wonders if either of them knows the basic history of World War II or the basics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and here's why:
1. Six million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust by the Nazis and their helpers only because they were Jewish, not because they had attacked the Nazis, or the Polish, Ukrainian and French-vichy collaborators (among others) who supported the Nazis.
2. The Arabs who attacked Jews in the British Mandatory Palestine initiated the hostilities and vastly outnumbered the Jews. They felt sure of their victory, frequently exclaiming that their goal was to wipe out the Jews. Often they would shout the battle cry in Arabic itbakh a-yahoud: slaughter the Jews. That was true in Hebron and Jerusalem in 1929, 1936 and 1948, and, unfortunately it is still largely true for many Palestinian Arabs today who remember Arafat's claim that he would use diplomacy as much as he could, and then he would finish the job with the sword. Hamas is the same, but it does not even go through the foreplay of diplomacy.
So when Wilson wants to convey that Obama was a thoroughly pragmatic analyst who "counted on" the "natural give and take of negotiation" one wonders exactly what model of Mid-East negotiation Obama or Wilson had witnessed.
Everything we know about Obama and the Mideast suggests that his support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of the Islamist regime in Turkey-plus his engagement of Iran and his pressuring of Israel-are all born of a strong ideological view nurtured by the likes of Edward Said, Rashid Khalidi, William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright.
Neither Obama nor his top advisors want to hear that the Muslim Brotherhood essentially gave birth to Al-Qaeda and Hamas, that it took its name from the Ikhwan-the shock troops of the Wahhabi movement in Arabia.
Neither Obama nor his advisors want to hear that Egyptian leader Morsi and Turkish leader Erdogan both speak of their dreams of establishing a caliphate, an Islamic empire. Ignorance is blissful, and few are more blissful than this administration.
No Washington Post historical re-write will fix Obama's catastrophic misplaying of the Arab-Israeli situation, just as no re-write will cover-up Obama's huge misperception of events in Egypt, Turkey, Iran or Syria. In all these states, Obama-Clinton-Biden have misperceived and performed badly on a grand scale.
This is really not a Jewish issue or even an issue for Christian Zionists. This should bother all Americans who care about America's special role in the world, unless they are right-wing isolationists like Ron Paul or left-wing bashers of all pro-Western regimes, like some of Obama's left-wing core supporters.
Of course there are many American Jews who do not really care about the Middle East or Israel, and many of them are more concerned about issues like gun control, prayers in schools or abortion. But the Mideast should still concern them because the Mideast is still the source of much of the world's oil and much of the world's terror.
Having a stable and reliable ally in the Middle East-especially at time of great upheaval-should be high on any president's agenda.
When an American president meets with an Israeli prime minister, one hopes that whoever leads the U.S. does not look as if the prospect of meeting the Israeli leader (whoever he or she is) is like having to swallow extra strong horseradish, or, if you don't like gefilte fish, then like swallowing too much harif hot sauce on falafel.
Dr. Michael Widlanski is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat just published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He was a reporter, writer, correspondent and editor for The New York Times, The Cox Newspapers and The Jerusalem Post, respectively, and also served as strategic advisor for Israel's Ministry of Public Security.