Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Obama Must Come to the Mountain

On my way into the center of Jerusalem this week, I witnessed some proverbial “writing on the wall.”  An enigmatic call appeared in graffiti on the retaining wall of a park I pass through each morning.  Against the pale stone background someone had spray-painted in Hebrew: “If Obama will not come to the mountain; the mountain will come to Obama.”  Beyond the worrying placement of Obama’s name where that of Muhammed usually appears, I am not sure what the scrawl defacing this picturesque park intends to say.  But an editorial by Aluf Benn in this morning’s Haaretz clarified to me that in order to move forward here, it is time for the President to come to the mountain, to the original “city on a hill.”


A huge omission lies in the American demand that Israel freeze construction in the settlements. President Barack Obama and his aides failed to stir an internal Israeli debate on the settlements and did not pose a political or public challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding his insistence that “natural growth” be allowed beyond the Green Line.

A Haaretz-Dialog poll published last Friday shows that the public is divided over what is best: construction in the territories or friendship with Obama. Nonetheless, no political force in Israel stood up to Netanyahu and called on him to “say yes to Obama – freeze the settlements.” Not Tzipi Livni and Kadima, who missed an opportunity to challenge the prime minister because of the rift with the United States. Not Yuli Tamir and the other Labor rebels, who could have depicted Defense Minister Ehud Barak as a collaborator with the settlers. Even Meretz, which is trying to rehabilitate itself, did not take up the flag of struggle that Obama put out there.

During deliberations in the Knesset a week ago, some opposition MKs attacked Netanyahu for ruining our ties with the United States. But none of them, not even the Arab MKs, called on him to accept Obama’s demand.

The left’s silence is amazing if we recall the previous crisis in relations with the United States, during the era of George H.W. Bush. At that time Laborites demanded that prime minister Yitzhak Shamir “say yes to [secretary of state James] Baker,” and when he refused, they disbanded the unity government. Two years later the left supported America when it conditioned loan guarantees to Israel on freezing settlements. This time, nothing. It’s as if the left is saying: Let Obama and Bibi fight it out – we’re going to the beach. It’s summertime.

What happened? First, Obama did not try to communicate with the Israeli public and convince them that freezing settlements will be an important and positive step to contribute to peace and a better future. Obama addressed the Arabs and Muslims, but not the Israelis. His neglect increased concerns among Israelis that they do not have a friend in the White House.… 630.html

There is an obvious strategic advantage to leaving the initial stages to emissaries.  Obama was astute to add George Mitchell to the team, not just because of the former senator’s experience and accomplishments in Northern Ireland, but because this move added an additional level to the diplomatic structure.  Whether Mitchell, tasked with the specifics of this conflict, belongs above or beneath Secretary of State Clinton in this hierarchy is beside the point.  Nor does this structure need to be strict and schematic.  Nonetheless, if Obama comes to Israel now, and speaks to both Israelis and Palestinians directly here, his appeals and reassurances need not disrupt the structure he put in place to work out the details wherein both gods and devils reside.  

Aluf Benn is incorrect that Obama “did not try to communicate with the Israeli public.”  His speech in Cairo indeed addressed some central Israeli concerns.  But those who disagreed with his strategy in not coming to Jerusalem, mostly from the right, seem to have had a point, though probably not one to their liking.  Benn is correct that Obama has not yet mobilized his natural allies here on the left or given them any support by addressing those in the center.  Obama almost always excels at presenting his “vision” and its rationale, and particularly in offering reassurance and encouragement to confront the anxieties that always accompany change.  

Ideally, I would like to see Obama address both the Israeli and Palestinian legislative bodies in a sort of “joint session” somewhere in Jerusalem.  My guess is that such an event would be blocked, at least by Netanyahu but potentially also by Abbas.  A speech to the Knesset followed by one to the PA legislature in Ramallah would work almost as well.  He must assure each group that America will abandon neither of them, that he sees justice and political necessity in addressing the concerns of each for their mutual benefit.  He is one of the few statespersons in recent history who might prove up to this task.  Bringing both Clintons and both Carters (perhaps even both George and Laura Bush as well) with him could emphasize both continuity in the US commitment to Israel and sincere concern with the Palestinian position.  

The US will not impose a solution militarily.  Nor Should it.  Sovereignty here is more national than popular at this juncture.  Nonetheless, for there to be diplomatic progress, the local populations must be addressed directly.  Their anxieties must be addressed.  They must be convinced that Obama’s vision is a just one, a fair one, a benevolent one, and that America will stand firmly behind it for the long haul to ensure its accomplishment and stability.

President Obama, the time has arrived.  The mountain awaits.

Cross-posted at MyDD.  I would ask those constitutionally capable of logging on over there to paste comments there to enrich the discussion.


  1. I know that (along with Egypt) Israel is one of the biggest beneficiaries of US aid and military subsidy, but is this controlled by Congress?

    During the Oslo Accords, settler expansion on the West Bank actually accelerated, so while there’s political pressure to be applied by any US admin at the level of treaties and entreaties, the economic, social and political facts on the ground have meant that the movement from occupation to annexation seems unstoppable.

    Gaza was always a bit of a red herring in this respect, and has been used by both Hamas and elements within the Israeli Government as an ideological example of the impossibities of compromise. To both extremes, peace is not really a virtue or a desirable result.

    Given the interests in either a) the status quo or b) an acceleration of conflict, I applaud the idea of Obama addressing Israelis and Palestinians directly, but wonder what the real leverage he has at this moment is.

    Northern Ireland is of course an interesting example: but by the early 1990s both sides had realised a military solution would not work: the British saw the political support for Sinn Fein, while the Provisional IRA recognised that they would never get a United Ireland through military means. That realisation was the precondition for peace talks.

    But I fail to see (apart from justice, international approval and the end of the odd rocket attack from Gaza) what real incentives there are for Israel to negotiate over the settlements. Obama can talk quietly. But where’s his big stick?  

  2. HappyinVT

    however, I really think he needs to show focus on our economy right now.  His schedule has forced him to be out of the country four or five times in the last six months (and I believe he’s got a trip to China scheduled for the fall).  These trips may be necessary and surely have helped rehabilitate the US image but unemployment figures keep going up and things still look really bleak.  Most of us know he can multi-task but he needs, right now, to look like he’s focused on the economy.

  3. creamer

     Maybe Obama should go to the West Bank and anounce we are giving half of the 3 billion in military aid we give to Israel to the Palestinians instead. I know that will upset General Dynamics and other arms producers but it would send a clear message to Israel. The money could be directed a infrastructue projects in the West Bank and possibly Gaza. If my government is going to borrow money in my name I’d prefer they use my portion to build schools, hospitals and roads.

    Israeli building in the West Bank is a minature version of Manifest Destiny, keep taking land and resources from the brown people until they go away.

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