Sunday, June 7, 2009 | 2 a.m.
When asked what I thought of President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo the other day, I had to reach all the way back to law school to find an appropriate, albeit not so satisfying, answer.
“It depends on the jurisdiction.”
And the jurisdiction of the president’s overarching and philosophically satisfying speech was Egypt, a country known for its lackluster efforts toward democracy, its near inundation, to the point of paralysis, by hate groups — those who hate Egypt’s leaders as much as they hate anyone else, like America or Israel — and a country known for the courageousness of its former president, Anwar Sadat, who stepped forward for peace with Israel and paid for the privilege with his life.
Yes, given the neighborhood that President Obama was in, I have to say the speech he gave was more than OK. It was groundbreaking, it was necessary and it was probably better than whatever else was second place in the “what should we do now” scenarios the folks in the White House and the State Department dream up.
I say that because we have long been on the road toward peace in the Middle East. Small inroads have been made only grudgingly and only when there are leaders courageous enough to lead their people toward a better life. Think Jordan and Egypt, and that’s about it. And, on the opposite side of the scale, think Yasser Arafat, who had peace in his hands for the Palestinians but lacked the courage in his heart to give it to his people.
So, for President Obama to go into the heart of Islamic darkness — and by that I mean a place that, even though it has a peace treaty with Israel, still harbors a virulent anti-Israel, anti-Western hatred fueled in its mosques and schools — to address these difficult issues was both bold and jurisdictionally significant.
It is not, however, a speech he would have given in another jurisdiction. Say Israel, for example.
The Middle East is a place very different from the United States. In our country, when someone tells us how much something costs, we pay it. And when someone tells us what he will do, we not only take him at his word but we rely on it — sometimes to our detriment.
In the world in which Israel and its Arab neighbors find themselves, there is no first and only price. If you pay what is asked, you lose your opponent’s respect. If you don’t engage in some haggling, however distasteful, over some good-tasting coffee or tea, you don’t respect your opponent. And so it goes.
Words over there have one meaning; deeds are something entirely different. It is very rare that a Middle Eastern leader will say what he means publicly. Everything is in code. Once you get the hang of it, all is good. America, however, with all the best intentions, has been slow to that switch.
One thing, however, that is consistent in that part of the world with ours is the need to speak the truth at some point. If, for example, President Obama had been in Israel when he spoke of the Holocaust and the murder of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis, and then spoke, “on the other hand,” about the Palestinians who were living in refugee camps for 60 years, as if there was some moral equivalence of the two, there would have been an immediate questioning of the long-standing and secure relationship between those two great allies.
Simply put, there is no moral equivalence of the murder of 6 million people and anything else we know on this planet — although some have tried to reach that goal in other places on the globe and at other times.
Nor would the president have been able to get out of Israel unchallenged when he recounted his version of history with regard to who was the oppressor, who was the occupier and who was the reason for all the bad things that have befallen those unfortunate Palestinians confined to the camps.
Most refugees are displaced for months or a year or three. Not 60 years! Most of the refugee camps of which the president spoke were created when the Arabs voluntarily left the newly partitioned State of Israel in 1948 — when they were invited to stay as full citizens. Those same “refugees” joined practically every Arab country in an attack against the virtually defenseless Jews. That didn’t work out so well — a pattern that has continued to this day — and those who left were confined by their brothers to the camps. They were not assimilated, not invited to join and not made to feel welcome in any way by their Arab hosts. And Israel was the oppressor?
I think I understand why President Obama glossed over those facts in his effort to win the hearts and minds of a younger generation of Arabs across the Middle East. It is abundantly clear that the real facts on the ground and the biases that have grown up around them have prevented both sides from listening, at least listening enough to go the last mile toward peace.
But he should also understand that to the Israelis, this is really serious business. The world has stood by — at least once — while a madman tried to eradicate them. Hitler was given free rein, even when America and its allies knew what was happening — to do his damnedest to the Jews. And boy did he do that!
So when the Israelis hear our president seemingly ignore previous commitments made, deny long-term understandings and provide moral equivalence to people who would kill innocent men, women and children in the name of God, they get concerned.
In the jurisdiction of Israel, President Obama’s speech would have been a failure and a betrayal. And it would have been made worse by his very public criticism in the past couple of weeks of Israel’s settlement stance without so much as a critical quid pro quo for the Palestinians. You’ve heard about those folks; they are the ones who rain down rockets on the heads of innocent Israeli men, women and children.
Obama’s public utterances have emboldened Palestinian leaders to the point where they think they can boycott the negotiating table — not based on what they say but on what the American president says! Is that the way toward peace?
However, in the jurisdiction of the Arab Middle East, where the speech was given, it should be hailed as a courageous and creative step toward a better understanding between America and the vast majority of well-intentioned Muslims.
And, as is often the case in the law, not only does the jurisdiction matter but the persuasiveness of the advocate matters more.
Everyone knows what peace in the Middle East will look like. We have been down this road enough times that most of us could draw the maps in our sleep. Perhaps what has been missing is the right advocate with the right message.
If President Obama’s speech in Cairo was the right message to bring peace to the region, then I, for one, will forgive him his historical mistakes and praise him as everyone should.
For blessed are the peacemakers — no matter what they have to say to get us there.
Brian Greenspun is editor of the Las Vegas Sun.