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Obama is right, it’s time for honesty

June 12, 2009

The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition

In Perspective: Obama is right, it’s time for honesty

Jun. 11, 2009

In the days leading up to his landmark speech in Cairo, US President Barack Obama said it was time for “honesty” between the United States and Israel. Now he has spoken, and we should respond in kind. For Obama is right – it is time, at long last, for honesty.bibicropped

Too many analyses of the speech have ignored the fact that it was addressed primarily to the Muslim world, and was delivered in Egypt. And in that setting, Obama insisted that the US-Israel relationship could not be upended. He mentioned the Holocaust, (implicitly) berated Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his Holocaust denial, quoted the Talmud and called on Hamas to recognize Israel and abandon violence.

Not bad.

To be sure, it was not the speech that many Israelis would have written. Obama’s articulated position on Iranian nuclear power is unacceptable, just as an absolute freeze on natural growth in “settlements,” even in places where settlements are essentially cities, is both unfair and thoroughly unrealistic. And linking Israel’s right to exist to the Holocaust is a significant intellectual and moral mistake.

We could go on, but to spend our time pointing to all our disagreements with Obama while avoiding his call for honesty would be a mistake. With stunning clarity, he has told the world where he stands. Now it is time for us to do the same. What are we committed to? What are our red lines? Do we even know?

Ironically, what Obama’s first shots across the bows of both Israel and the Palestinians have inadvertently highlighted for us is that we’re a country that does not know how to be honest, even with itself. For too long we have avoided the national conversation that would have been required for us to have a vision as clear as Obama’s. Now is the time to have that conversation, and then, as Obama has requested, to be honest about what we decide.

WHERE SHOULD we begin? As but one example, let’s begin with some of the questions that the West Bank raises: Are we ever willing to give up the West Bank? For a moment, let’s set aside the obvious security issue and the devastating consequences if Kassam rockets start flying from the West Bank as well. Let’s assume for a minute (a wild assumption, I admit) that the Palestinians decide that it really is time to move on, to abandon terror and accept a division of the land. Are we willing?

I believe that we don’t know anymore. Our unwillingness to state our position is not a reflection of dishonesty or of hiding. It’s simply a result of the fact that we have for so long seen no possibility of progress on the Palestinian front that we’ve stopped asking ourselves what we would do if we could.

So let’s be honest: What would we do?

Are we willing to leave the West Bank, land that is no less ancestrally Jewish and religiously significant than any other part of Israel? If we are committed to staying there permanently, for historical, theological or even security reasons, isn’t it time just to say that? Or to annex it and stop pretending we haven’t made that decision?

When some of us speak about not making any change until the Palestinians have built a genuinely democratic infrastructure (bottom-up, we call it), are we serious? Or do we simply assume that they’ll never accomplish that under present circumstances, so what we’re effectively doing is announcing, though not with the “honesty” that Obama is rightly calling for, that we plan to stay, no matter what?

IF WE PLAN to stay, which could well be defensible, let’s be honest about the endgame. What do we plan for the Palestinian population there? The status quo forever? Are we going to make them citizens, and thus further erode Israel’s fragile Jewish majority? Are we going to give them some sort of citizenship that involves full civic rights but not the right to vote on matters that determine the nature of the state? Is that the democracy we seek? Do we have any alternative? Or are we planning to move the Palestinians to some other location (a plan which didn’t work very well with India and Pakistan, but which worked flawlessly in Cyprus)?

But if, alternatively, we do plan to leave the West Bank, what would we do if it turned into Hamastan, as happened in Gaza? We had no contingency plan for Gaza, and the results have been devastating. Will we make the same mistake again? And if we could solve the security issue, will we force all the Jews on the West Bank to leave? Or will we insist on their right to continue living there, even if under Palestinian rule?

And if Jews do have to be moved, are we accepting the international community’s tacit premise that only Jews can be moved (out of Gaza, and later, out of the West Bank)? Why can’t Arabs be moved? As even Benny Morris has noted, the Peel Commission “recommended that the bulk of the 300,000 Arabs who lived in the territory earmarked for Jewish sovereignty should be transferred, voluntarily or under compulsion, to the Arab part of Palestine or out of the country altogether,” and suggested that 1,250 Jews living in those areas slated for Arab sovereignty be moved as well, in “an exchange of population.”

How has it come to be that what the British once advocated we are too timid to raise? If Jews had to leave Gaza and might eventually have to leave the West Bank, is the movement of (some?) Arabs from Israel so it can remain a Jewish state so obviously out of the question? Why?

THESE ARE the questions we never discuss, because each of our leaders inherits a coalition so fragile that even raising such questions threatens to topple the government. So what if we were to use this new “crisis” as an opportunity?

What if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu were to begin speaking with the Americans, and with any Palestinians who publicly recognize our right to exist, but at the same time forged a coalition of Labor, Kadima, Israel Beiteinu and Likud, all of which called for dramatic electoral reform? He’d have the votes needed to pass the reform (several plans are ready) and make Israel governable. He’d make it possible for Israelis to finally talk about the issues we never discuss in the public square. He’d end the cynical and self-destructive culture of “Yisrabluff,” and ultimately he’d make it possible for us to form a national consensus about which we could finally be honest – with the world, but more importantly, with ourselves.

Imagine that. If Netanyahu seized this opportunity, Barack Obama, despite everything we didn’t love about his Cairo address, might actually enable us to discuss our vision for the future of Israel.

And with that, Obama may have saved the Jewish state.

The writer is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His most recent book is Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End. He blogs at

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