A couple of years ago, I wrote a public letter to President Obama applauding his commitment to peace in the Middle East, but warning that he should be prepared to fail. My reasoning was that he was following Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result.
In critiquing his approach, I used the metaphor of trying to plant a flower into desert sand. No matter how hard you try to force it, if the earth isn’t right, nothing will grow.
This flower — a sapling would be a more apt metaphor — represents peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. For nearly two decades, this little tree has been paraded around the world as the “key to peace in the Middle East.” Accordingly, no issue has captivated globetrotting diplomats quite like this one.
Among all diplomats, perhaps the one who has spent the most time on this issue has been Dennis Ross, the point man on the peace process for three U.S. presidents, including the current administration.
Several years ago, Ross said something to me at a charity event that stuck with me: His biggest regret was that they didn’t enforce the anti-incitement clause in the Oslo agreement.
Ross was revealing a painful truth about the peace process — you can’t have peace without education. You can haggle over borders all day long, but if the people living within those borders are poisoned with hate and are not prepared for compromise, no leader will sign on to an “end of conflict” agreement.
You can make a good case that, had the Palestinian Authority spent the last two decades selling peace to its people, they’d have their own state by now and we’d be talking today about common projects, not Qassam rockets.
But of course they didn’t sell peace. Instead, they sold the well-worn script of Arab dictators who need to build street cred with the masses: Demonize the Jews and the Zionist entity. Is it any wonder that Palestinian leaders, from Arafat to Abbas, have found it so difficult to say yes to Israeli peace offers? How could they compromise with an enemy they helped to demonize?
What would they say to their people? Sorry, we lied to you — the Jews really do have a claim to this land? It’s true, they’ve had a presence in Jerusalem for more than 3,000 years? If Israel is willing to withdraw settlements for the sake of peace, we should also be willing to compromise on the right of return? Let’s be nice with them so they will help us create a great country?
What is so shocking about those simple words is that we have never heard them spoken by any Palestinian leader, in English or in Arabic.
Yet those words were the crucial missing ingredients to nourish the tree of peace. They needed to be spoken not occasionally at interfaith meetings, but consistently and persuasively in Palestinian schools, media, summer camps and mosques.
But who ever dared pressure Palestinian leaders to speak those words? Peace groups? A global community that kept pouring billions into Palestinian coffers while reinforcing their narrative of exclusive victimhood? The United States, which never gave Palestinians any incentive to stop glorifying terrorism and start teaching peace?
When Obama the peacemaker finally had his chance, instead of promoting peace, he promoted the tired old trope of putting pressure on Israel to make more unilateral concessions.
Instead of launching, for example, a breakthrough peace-education campaign to convey to Palestinians that peace was worth compromising on the right of return, and to Israelis that peace would not mean suicide, he came up with a new excuse for Palestinians to stay away from peace talks: A Jewish construction freeze as a precondition to those talks.
By the time he realized his blunder, it was too late. He had already lost both sides. As Rabbi Donniel Hartman politely suggested last week in a “Letter to Obama,” Israeli society “doesn’t fully trust you yet.”
Ironically, neither do the Palestinians, who, given no incentive by the United States to negotiate or compromise, simply flew off to make their own deal with the world.
Obama planted seeds all right, but instead of seeds of peace, they were seeds of failure.