On the political stage, a short period of five months might as well be an eternity. As the world turns on its axis, events least expected can and often do happen, and spin out of control; and carefully laid out plans go awry.
On Thursday June 4, 2009, President Obama spoke to the world from the august Major Reception Hall at Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt. Appropriately titled "A New Beginning", the speech was grand and impressive. He described Palestinians' statelessness as "intolerable", and recognized their aspirations for statehood and dignity as legitimate, just as legitimate as Israel's desire for a Jewish homeland. And, of course, he reaffirmed, as he had done several times before, America's alliance with Israel, calling their mutual bond "unbreakable". He was wearing his peace mask. That was only five months ago, and already it seems so very long ago.
Now, consider this scenario: Imagine an experienced ballerina on a well-lit stage, waiting to dance a beautifully choreographed "Swan Lake". But instead of playing the well-rehearsed and famous Tchaikovsky score, the orchestra suddenly decides to play rap music, and as the startled ballerina tries to take it into stride and begins to improvise, an immense hydraulic pump beneath the stage begins to slowly raise the back of the stage, and as a consequence the ballerina slides and falls on fer face. Now imagine that Secretary of State Clinton was this ballerina. That is what happened to her in Jerusalem last week. This is the sequence of a series of events that started in Washington and culminated in Morocco in a fiasco:
Last week President Obama sent Secretary of State Clinton for a short sojourn through Pakistan to assure Pakistanis of USA's long term committment to Pakistan. From Pakistan Clinton flew to Abu Dhabi, to meet PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and to urge him to rejoin the stalled peace process. He firmly declined that invitation saying that unless Israel froze all settlement activities he will not negotiate. From Abu Dhabi Mrs. Clinton flew to Jerusalem to meet Netanyahu. She emerged from a closed door meeting with Netanyahu and, in a joint press meeting made this befuddled statement: "What the prime minister has offered... a restraint on the policy of settlements, which he has just described, no new starts, for example, is unprecedented in the context of prior negotiations." In other words, Netanyahu would build the recently approved (with Obama's blessimgs) 3000 new housing units on land already confiscated from Palestinians, but he would build them at a slower pace. He will not start new settlements, but will only extend existing illegal settlements. She priased Netanyahu's offer effusively.
This statement caused a great furor in the Arab world. Mahmoud Abbas said Mr. Netanyahu's proposal was a "non-starter," in the words of his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. And Erekat said that halting settlement construction was the "only way to ensure the revival of the peace process." The secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, said Mrs. Clinton's remarks in Jerusalem "mean that we are once again in the same vicious circle we were in the 1990s". The Arabs saw a clear US tilt towards Israel. The Saudis were upset with Mrs. Clinton; Jordan's King Abdullah was livid. It soon dawned on President Obama that Mrs. Clinton had to tone down, and retune and fine-tune what she was saying. So here in Washington Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip J. Crowley clarified for The Jerusalem Post that the United States is still demanding that Israel freeze all settlement activity, but that it should not be a precondition for talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
And in Morocco, before meeting with the Arab foreign ministers, Mrs. Clinton moderated her praise for Israel's offer to restrain building settlements in Palestinian areas. Regarding Netanyahu's offer she said, "It is not what we want; it is nowhere near enough. But I think when you keep your eye on what we want to achieve, it is a better place to be than the alternative. And therefore, I think we should be trying to keep moving the parties." She insisted that Washington still considered settlement activity in West Bank "illegitimate" and that Obama wanted a freeze.
Even though Mrs. Clinton's "slip" occured in Jerusalem, the crack in Obama's peace mask occured in Washington. That is the nature of political occurences, sometimes. An event occurs in one place, but the consequence can be seen in a distant place, far removed from the place of occurence.
George Mitchell met again with Mr. Abbas, this time in Jordan, on Monday, and also with King Abdullah. In Marrakesh, Morocco, Mrs. Clinton tried to persuade skeptical Arab foreign ministers of the value of Israel's proposal. She even met Libyan foreign minister, Musa Kusa. Wow!
From Marrakesh Mrs. Clinton flew to Cairo to confer with Hosni Mubarak, and to mollify Muslims angry at her remarks at the weekend praising Israel's offer to slow down - but not freeze - settlement construction in the West Bank. Netanyahu would continue to build in East Jerusalem, however.
Be that as it may, I believe that the reason the peace process has not succeeded even after forty years' negotiations is that America loves Israel blindly. Call it motherly love. The USA feels motherly love for Israel, but it has a step-motherly attitude towards Palestinians. That is the very kernel of the problem. Until the step-motherly attitude towards the Palestinians changes, there will be no peace in the Middle East.
It is becoming abundantly clear that President Obama is not unbiased regarding Israel-Palestine conflict. His Middle East policy now has a clear, discernible tilt towards Israel. The peace mask that he wore so successfully for nine months as an unbiased arbiter for peace has cracked.
A new peace mask for Obama is on order, I suppose.
Yesh Prabhu, Plainsboro, NJ