Obama, Israel and the Arab World

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

President Barack Obama makes a statement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty)

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Washington correspondent for The Jewish Daily ForwardNathan Guttman previewed President Obama's pending speech Thursday on the uprisings rocking the Arab world as well as Obama's scheduled meeting with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday.

There's a confluence of events these days around the prolific Israeli-Palestinian conflict — multiple incidents along Israel's borders on Sunday are showing a new kind of Palestinian activism, President Obama and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu will meet in Washington on Friday, Obama gives a speech on Thursday on the Middle East and Mahmoud Abass had an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Monday pushing for Palestinian statehood by way of the U.N.

So, what will come of this succession of events and what is America's role during this "Arab spring" beyond Israel's borders? Nathan Guttman, Washington correspondent for the Jewish newspaper The Forward, weighed in.

Conflicting narratives

How does the "Arab spring" change the tone of this old conflict?

In recent years we see these competing narratives, the Israeli narrative of Jewish independence of the historic homeland and the Palestinian narrative of the Nakba, the catastrophe that drove Arabs out of their homeland, and we definitely see these clashes increasing in recent years. I believe that the change this time mainly had to do with the circumstances overseas. Palestinians and their supporters are looking around to the Middle East, they see Tahrir Square in Cairo, they see people going out to the streets all over and there is this attempt to harness this spirit of change within the Arab world, this idea of mass demonstrations of putting civilians on the front lines for their own cause and this is why we saw these demonstrations go on this week with the attempt to cross the border on the Syrian and Lebanese was definitely an attempt to try to echo this popular sentiment in the broader Arab world and replicate it within the Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Shifting landscape of an old conflict

Guttman argued that discussion of peace and resolution to this conflict aren't presenting negotiations now as they have in the past.

We saw in President Mahmoud Abass's op-ed in the New York Times, he wants to seek Palestinian statehood, not through negotiations with Israel, but rather through recognition by the U.N's general assembly. This is the path similar to the one Israel pursued back in 1947. Abass believes that is the only way he can bring Palestinian statehood about. Now Israeli prime minister Netanyahu is still calling for negotiations with the Palestinians but he has a caveat now. He says if the Palestinians are going for a unity government with Hamas, this is not a government we can talk peace to because Hamas doesn't even recognize Israeli's rights to exist...

And all of this shifting, Guttman said, doesn't mean the peace process is any further along. In fact, he said it's taken a few steps back because there is no real talk about negotiating.

What will Obama say?

Because Obama has been criticized for not presenting a coherent and consistent response to the Middle East uprisings, Guttman said he expects to see the president present a clear "Obama doctrine for the Middle East" in light of the popular uprising in the Arab world. According to Guttman, originally there was some expectation that the president would come out and take a stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this speech, but not anymore.

The sense now is that the President Obama now will stop short of actually making any suggestions. He will just speak of the principle of the need to resolve the conflict, maybe he will mention the need to resolve it based on the 1967 borders with land swaps which is something the administration has already said, but he will not come forward with an Obama plan.

According to Guttman, the progressive and left-wing elements will be disappointed not to hear a more firm plan from the president on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because they think Netanyahu won't negotiate without any U.S. pressure. But he argued that it may also leave Netanyahu feeling relieved that he doesn't have as much pressure from the U.S. as to what he says.

What will Netanyahu say?

The Israeli leader will speak at the annual policy conference of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington and he will also speak to Congress. Despite the fact that he may not hear pressure from the U.S. through Obama's speech, the Obama administration is still expecting to hear something new from the Israelis, Guttman said.

The administration does feel that...looking forward at this Palestinian drive for statehood through the U.N., America does need something from the Israelis to fight back, something that they can come to the Palestinians, to their world and say, listen, Netanyahu is serious with his willingness to go forward, drop this unilateral statehood idea and let's negotiate.

Netanyahu is also under pressure at home. His coalition doesn't want to see any negotiating right now, Guttman said.

What Mahmoud Abass said

In his New York Times op-ed this week, Abass made the case for the U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood. This is clearly a big concern for Israel, Guttman said.

Israel is very worried about this prospect, not because it has that much of a practical meaning in terms of the way Israel will conduct its business. It doesn't really matter if the U.N. general assembly votes in September in favor of forming or recognizing a Palestinian state in the West Bank because it doesn't mean there is a Palestinian state there and it doesn't mean that Israel has to withdraw and it doesn't change anything on the ground. It does however change Israel's position in the international arena, and that is something that Israel is increasingly aware of and worried about because if the U.N. actually declares that the West Bank is a Palestinian state than legally, Israel is in a very difficult position and it will be difficult for Israel to come to these international bodies and protect its presence and its occupation of the West Bank..and Israel is afraid that this will just strengthen a attempt to take the Israeli conflict to the courts, to the legal arena. It can also, Israeli's fear, increase the efforts to de-legitimize Israel.


Nathan Guttman


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Comments [32]

Stuart from Jew York City!

i think obama is trying to do the best thing in a tough situation.

but tell me - why in the world should israel agree to a withdrawl to the '1967 borders' when the palestinian government was very recently taken over by hamas?

maybe obama should promise some troops to guard the new border against the rockets and 13-year old female suicide bombers that will no doubt be acting as the diplomats of the future Palestine

when the arabs get their act together, we can talk. until then, it's just a bunch of hot air.

am yisrael chai!

May. 19 2011 09:48 PM
Scott from Lower Manhattan

I say why does the whole planet focus on a country the size of New Jersey?

Because some very powerful international interests care, namely the possessors of a large chunk of the world's crude production. They believe that the Jews should only live in their midst as a subjugated people and the Jews refuse to abide by that.

May. 17 2011 05:37 PM
Scott from Lower Manhattan

RLewis: Your call for compromise is noble, but there is a possibility you have to factor in. I'll make an analogy, suppose two hungry people come across a stockpile of food and need to decide how to divide it amongst them. If both of them are only interested in feeding themselves, then coming up with a compromise that would allow both to eat should not be that difficult. However, if one of them has the objective that the other should starve to death, then no compromise is possible.

Such is the case with the Fatah-Hamas alliance, their objective is for Jewish self-determination to be obliterated. There are more pragmatic Palestinians who seek improvement for themselves, as opposed to the Jews detriment, but it is not safe for them to openly cooperate with Israelis to gain such improvements. As I heard from one Israeli community leader who had extensive dealings with such Palestinian community leaders, one day he got a call from one of them asking "Please stop contacting me!" The next day he was found hanging from a tree, naked, with his genitals removed. That is the reality of the Palestinian national movement, that cooperation with Jews is treason worthy of such punishment.

May. 17 2011 05:29 PM

"I say why does the whole planet focus on a country the size of New Jersey?"

Oh, I ask the very same thing, Elaine, but nevertheless it does. I guess, because that's where 3 major religions cross paths.

May. 17 2011 01:08 PM
Elaine from Baltimore

Re: RLewis

It indeed would be wonderful if we could just kiss and make-up, let bygones be bygones. But history has a nagging habit of repeating itself. The details may change but overall the currents are the same. To ignore this is like sticking your head in the sand.
Israel HAS sacrificed plenty already. It sacrificed oil independence when the Sinai was given up for a tenuous peace with Egypt. It sacrificed uprooting a whole community in Gaza only to have the greenhouses it left burned and turned into rocket launchers. It opened up a united Jerusalem for all who wished to pray in their houses of worship, unlike Jordan who, under their auspices until 1967, purposely destroyed all synagogues in the Old City and did not let Jews access to the Kotel (Wailing Wall).
"Dragging the whole planet down" you say? I say why does the whole planet focus on a country the size of New Jersey?

May. 17 2011 01:02 PM

Scott, is that really what it is about for you - "consequences"? An eye for an eye and soon enough we're all blind.

I just want both sides to hammer out a compromise, and stop dragging down the rest of the planet. And that means both sides giving up something(s), and stop letting each side's extreme ends dictate the current stalemate.

It this point, I'm pretty much "a pox on both your houses" person. I've just had enough of the recriminations - we all have 'em. Come on. 2 states now!

May. 17 2011 12:21 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Anybody who wants to see the TRUE Palestinian position should see this little clip of a 92 year old Palestinian woman and what she has to say:

May. 17 2011 12:08 PM
Scott from Lower Manhattan

RLewis: While you have a valid point about European injustices and crimes not being something that the Palestinians should pay for, there's also the issue of Islamic injustices and crimes committed against the Jews under their jurisdiction, both in Palestine and beyond. For instance, there were the restrictions of dhimmitude, the prohibition against sitting at the Western and eventually the Hebron Massacre and the Farhud orchestrated by the Mufti, all in the name of teaching the Jews to pay homage to the master faith. Then there was the alliance that the Arab world formed with the Axis during WW II. Should there be no consequences for that?

May. 17 2011 11:58 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

To skeptic 2

The League of Nations in 1920 didn't recognize any national group living in Palestine either. Just an assortment of Arabic speaking groups, such as Bedouin Arabs, Bosnians, Sudanese black "Arabs," Samaritans, and other Arabic-speaking people, many of whose ancestors were from various parts of the Ottoman empire. Just as there are many ethnicities in Brooklyn and Queens, neither can claim to be a distinct nationality.

However, in 1947 the UN General Assembly nonetheless offered a compromise, to split western Palestine into a "Jewish State" and an "Arab State," the the Arabs rejected that and went to war to destroy the JEwish state rather than accepting another state for themselves.

So there is no legal ruling either by the LEague or the UN that recognizes any "Palestinian" nationality. It was manufactured primarily to counter Zionist claims, but had no historical basis whatsoever. No more than Queens or Brooklyn have any ancient national history, except by the "indians" who once lived here.

May. 17 2011 11:48 AM
Elaine from Baltimore

RE:RLewis from the bowery

The Arabs were offered a state multiple times (1948, after the 1967 war, remember the Three No's from the Arab states, etc) and they refused. How many times are we to continue this ruse?

FYI: an almost equal amount of Sephardic Jews were kicked out of Arab countries where they had lived for centuries, except Israel absorbed them, the Arabs didn't do likewise with those who left when Israel was created.

ReLaura from JC
Do you really believe Hamas will renounce terror? Israel can't afford to be so naive.

May. 17 2011 11:42 AM
dboy from nyc



May. 17 2011 11:40 AM

Odd! Israel claims it doesn't have a Palestinian "partner" because some Palestinians won't agree as a starting point that Israel has a right to exist.

Meanwhile, Israel has never asserted the right of the Palestinians to an autonomous and sovereign state with control over its own borders. Far from endorsing such a concept, Netenyahu actually boasted on tape of scuttling past peace talks and wrecking potential agreements.

Claiming to not have a partner is apparently a luxury only the big stick can afford.

May. 17 2011 11:39 AM

Even accepting that you're correct about all that, it still doesn't give Jews the right to take it all out on the Palestinians.

May. 17 2011 11:36 AM
dboy from nyc

C'mon, guys! Israel NEVER does anything bad. Never! If something bad does just happen to occur, it would have to be due to a completely uncharacteristic oversight or "accident". Besides, if Israel was ever inadvertently responsible for anything bad it can certainly be justified by the horrors the Nazis perpetuated on the Jews. The horrors of Nazi Germany certainly vindicate Israel of any possible malevolence.

May. 17 2011 11:36 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Yes, some 700,000 non-Jews were living in Palestine in 1920, but 9 million Jews were living almost as stateless people in other countries. Even as late as WWI, Jews were not allowed to own land in Poland. Jews were still not full citizens in most countries where they had lived for hundreds and even thousands of years. Even the fabulous and free US, JEws were often had to face a quota system and kept out of medical schools and hotels, etc. JEws faced discrimination even in the most liberal countries. Herzl finally concluded that the JEws are a displaced nation that will never have a shred of dignity or full rights anywhere unless they have their own country back.

May. 17 2011 11:32 AM
Scott from Lower Manhattan

jgarbuz: There ARE Muslims who accept the right of a Jewish state. For instance, there's Sheik Abdul Pallazzi. There are the Darfuris who have sought refuge in Israel.

Further, ibn Taymiyya called Muslims who revere Jerusalem "Judaizers" back in the 12th century. Saudi Arabia barely tolerates dissent from ibn Taymiyya on anything else, any indications for why they make an exception for this?

May. 17 2011 11:28 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

To SHerry

Sure Israel does things wrong, just as America does things wrong, but nobody questions America's right to exist. The US is not returning any land that it seized from Mexico or from the dozens of "indian" nations. And the US is not splitting its capital, Washington, with the native Americans either, so why is ISrael expected to do such things?

May. 17 2011 11:28 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

What if Germany and Japan or the USSR had refused to recognize America's right to exist, because they stole all the land from the "indians?"

Would the US sit down to negotiate with countries that did not recognize its right to exist? Why does Israel sit down with countries that don't accept the right of the Jewish state to exist? America would not sit down to negotiate with anyone who refused to recognize the US's right to exist. Didn't the US occupy millions of square miles of "indian" lands?

May. 17 2011 11:23 AM
Sherry from Ridgewood

Jeesh! Does Israel ever do ANYTHING wrong? Your guest makes it seem like Israel is readying for some kind of political sainthood.

May. 17 2011 11:23 AM

That's pretty much what I said, sans details. But when they were "restored" all sides neglected to consider that PEOPLE WERE ALREADY LIVING THERE.

May. 17 2011 11:23 AM
Elaine from Baltimore

Unfortunately, it's not about borders...
The Pals call Israel's Independence Day the Nakba".
Translation: the creation of the Jewish State of Israel

Until future envoys to the Middle East understand the religious dimension of the problem, and that the Arab- Israeli conflict is not about borders but about the existence of the state of Israel, all future attempts to make peace in the area will fail.

May. 17 2011 11:21 AM
Scott from Lower Manhattan

My suggestion: forget the palace diplomacy. Let the Palestinian village and grass roots leaders have a direct seat at the negotiation table along with various Israeli interest groups.

Nothing will ever stick without buy-in from those groups, so bring them in at the start instead of issuing diktats to the leaders and then being surprised when their constituents don't buy it.

May. 17 2011 11:21 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

To R Lewis

You were taught WRONG. It was the Council of the League of Nations in 1920 that accepted the British Balfour Declaration and turned it into international law, by issuing the League of Nations' Mandate over Palestine to Britain to administer FOR THE PURPOSE of restoring the Jewish people to its homeland and restoring Jewish sovereignty over it.

And Israel is only 74% Jewish. 26% of Israelis are not Jews - about 21% Muslims and some 4% Christians and 1% Others.

May. 17 2011 11:18 AM
Laura from JC

What a freaking contradiction: "Hamas accepts 1967 borders, but will never recognize Israel, top official says."

But why does it matter whether Hamas recognizes Israel or not, so long as it agrees to permanently end terror attacks against Israel? Who needs its recognition?

The issue of Hamas' recognition of Israel would be valid if Israel were about to enter into negotiations with it. Those negotiations would, in fact, be meaningless if Hamas ruled out recognition as an end result of negotiations — as meaningless as if Israel ruled out withdrawing from the West Bank.

May. 17 2011 11:17 AM

The guest seemed to suggest that Netanyahu's office staff is the only group who is glad Obama isn't laying out a plan.
Did the guest not completely answer the question? Should we infer that it extends also to hard-line pro-Israel sympathizers in general?

May. 17 2011 11:17 AM

I was taught that the British gave it to the Jewish people after WWII, who took it from the Arabs. So, it once was Jewish soil, but that was no longer the case... now it is again. It's all F'ed up, but you want to call "backseys" - that's not so easy as we all see. The 23 other countries have christians and others - they are not exclusively arab. Your incorrect sense of absolutes makes it impossible for compromise to happen - and that's the only way this will ever be resolved. I'm on your side, but you make it impossible for us to support you.

May. 17 2011 11:14 AM
Antonio from bayside

Is it true that only Israeli-jews can own property, serve in the military and government in the areas besides the west bank and gaza. Btw, not that it's ok for a restrictions in those areas to be clear...

May. 17 2011 11:14 AM
Sarahbelle from LES

Typical yet another Brian Leher show about Israel. A topic that has zero impact on the daily life of the American yet its all we hear about from WNYC day -in day out.

May. 17 2011 11:13 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

No Muslim accepts the right of a Jewish state to exist, so Hamas is simply being the most honest about it.

May. 17 2011 11:10 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

To R. Lewis who wrote:

"Since when does a group that's been kicked out of country after country over the centuries get to call the shots?"

That's the point. Israel is the ONLY Jewish country in the world and the Arabs have 23 of their own. In Israel Jews call ALL the shots. Period. It's Jewish soil. Arabic-speaking occupiers of Jewish soil do not get to have the upper hand.

May. 17 2011 11:03 AM
RLewis from the bowery

Thanks, jgarbuz. This is exactly why there will never be peace in the middle east -- the other side is never going to agree to all 5 of these points. Until both sides are willing to compromise nothing is going to change; and right now, both sides' conservative bases will not allow that to happen. Unfortunately, you're making Bush look more and more correct - it's not worth wasting our time, money and effort on.

"Since when do the losers of 6 wars get to dictate the peace terms?" Since when does a group that's been kicked out of country after country over the centuries get to call the shots?

May. 17 2011 11:01 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Netanyahu has laid out Israel's 5-point peace plan:

1. The Palestinians must recognize Israel as the Jewish nation’s state.

2. The treaty must be an end to the conflict.

3. The Arab refugee problem must be solved outside of Israel’s borders.

4 A Palestinian state will have to be demilitarized and a peace treaty must safeguard Israel’s security.

5. The settlement blocs will remain within the state of Israel and Jerusalem will remain its united capital.

Israel did not lose any wars and does not have to accept the DIKTATS of the Arabs, any more than the US had to accept the diktats of Japan and Germany in 1945! Since when do the losers of 6 wars get to dictate the peace terms? Israel is the Jewish state, according to UNGAR 181, and the JEwish National Home according to the San Remo treaty that created the League of Nations Mandate in 1922.

May. 17 2011 08:25 AM

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