Sunday, November 29, 2009

Israelis Fear Obama. That's The Point.

Barack Obama can do virtually nothing to halt the mounting fear among Israelis that he is hostile to them: no visits, no speeches, no jets. If you need proof, and don't know Hebrew, just look at the body language of Ben Caspit, the populist-journalist host of the very widely watched "Journal" program on Channel One, Friday nights.

Caspit fancies himself the voice of the common people, or at least its conscience, sort of like Chris Matthews. He may, God help us, be right, at least for the moment. This past Friday, he was (let's call it) interviewing two relatively moderate members of Knesset, one from Likud, and one from Kadima, both of whom support the settlement freeze, both of whom insist that this is not just a sham, for all of its qualifications. Kadima's Gideon Ezra, the former deputy director of the Shavak (the state security services), even insisted the freeze was very late in coming, for all the obvious strategic reasons; he implied that Kadima might well be prepared to join the coalition if Netanyahu required their support to pursue a deal with the Palestinians.

Both of these responses might have raised the antennae of an interviewer. Caspit was having none of it. Instead, he wanted to talk about the public statement Friday by Likud's Limor Livnat, a formidable minister in Netanyahu's coaliton, that the freeze only proves Obama is anti-Israel, that "we have fallen into the hands of a terrible administration."

The MKs tried to finesse her statement. Caspit decided to answer his own question. (You can watch him by clicking here and sliding the time bar to about 13:40.) "But in essence," Caspit said, "she [Livnat] said courageously what most of us think. The Americans--this administration--and I don't fear them because I am not, lucky for all of us, a minister--is really an administration that burdens us, and is awful and terrible for Israel." Nobody contradicted him. Later (at around 17:10) Caspit said: "What, and soon we'll have to freeze in Jerusalem? This is unprecedented." Gideon Ezra protested that, for example, starting a new settlement in Nof Zion--"which is really Jabel Mukaber"--is an absurd provocation; that the key is to strengthen moderate forces among the Palestinians. Caspit's answer in the form of a question (21:30): "So we will have given up 10 months of settlement for nothing, just so the goyim will say we are okay."

I won't dwell on the pathos of Caspit's rhetoric. Let's just say that when Theodore Herzl wrote his play "The New Ghetto" he was not anticipating the journalists of "The Jewish State." (For an antidote, read Gideon Levy's exasperated column from today's Haaretz.) Yet if Caspit was right to claim that he speaks for a majority of Israelis just now, what should Obama do about it? How to respond to the ways Caspi's talk embodies virtually everything Israelis fear in an American administration?

HERE"S THE THING. Instead of trying to allay this fear, Obama should use it. For what Caspit's outbursts really imply is the slow transformation of Israeli politics, where the fear of messing up relations with Washington slowly burns in; and Israelis, like Palestinians, are growing hungry for a "political horizon." Nobody really believes anymore in the "lets-give-them-land-and-maybe-they'll-leave-us-alone" school of peacemaking. But nobody but the hard right believes either in the plausibility of indefinite occupation. Caspit is afraid of change, and for all of his bravado, afraid of isolation. He may not realize this, but he's actually softening Israelis up for something creative from Washington.

The fear is there, and growing, you see. To pressure less will not earn Obama less animus. The point is to fill the vacuum the fear creates; refocus the conversation not only on what Israelis should stop doing, but on positive steps that make concrete what positive steps the world community--goyim--expect Israelis and Palestinians to take.

Here, for example, are three things the Obama administration can do to help reshape the conversation here:

First, it can state--now, in response to the "freeze"--that American policy is to pursue a deal based on the Taba Agreements of 2001. The "Clinton parameters" were at the heart of those negotiations. Senator Mitchell and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton might well enlist the former president to lay out those principles in a joint press conference. Mahmoud Abbas has virtually said he will immediately resume negotiations if Netanyahu will agree "to restart talks where they were left off." Abbas was referring to his months of meetings with Ehud Olmert, but those talks were themselves based on variations of the Taba plan.

Second, the Dubai economic crisis could be a huge boost for Palestine, in the ironic way the Gulf war of 1991 was a huge boost for Amman. Then, as now, the press was full of dire warnings about Palestinians losing their jobs in the Gulf and, hence, remittances back to families drying up. But, actually, the return of thousands of Palestinians (100,000 work in Dubai as engineers, instructors and in technology-related professions) to the West Bank would be a great boost to Palestinian intellectual capital. The Obama administration should publicly call for the return of qualified people, and task the American consul in Jerusalem with reviewing applications and monitoring Israeli responses to them. As I've argued in the past, Palestinians do not lack financial capital to develop their private sector. What they lack is access to their own talent and the capacity to execute their business plans under the burdens of the occupation. If Israel is serious about a peace partner, this is an extraordinary chance to help develop one.

Third, assuming Marwan Barghouti will indeed be released, Senator Mitchell should meet with him. The symbolic impact would be resounding.

These are all doable. Again, Obama will get no credit from Israelis by refraining from doing them.