By Gil Troy, HNN, 6-16-09
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on Sunday imitated yet countered U.S. President Barack Obama’s earlier speech in Cairo. Both leaders are best-selling authors, proud of their mastery of the written and spoken word. Both chose symbolically-significant university settings. Obama was co-hosted by Cairo University and Al-Azhar University, founded in 975, honoring Islam’s rich religious and political history. Netanyahu spoke at Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center of Strategic Studies. The setting invoked the two great peacemakers Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat at a modern Israeli religious Zionist university founded in 1955 whose emblem features the Torah as the eyepiece of a microscope. But in addition to their policy divergences, the dueling speeches reflect a fundamental clash of worldviews, with Netanyahu playing the historian to Obama the deconstructionist.
Barack Obama wants to synthesize, reconcile, heal. The son of a white Kansan mother and a black Kenyan father, he attended Harvard Law School during the Critical Legal Studies revolution, whose slogan “law is politics,” taught that law, like all human constructs, is mutable, and can be tailored to changing agendas. In his historic 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, Obama represented the red-white-and-blue American fording the overplayed red-blue and historic black-white divides. In reading Obama’s second book – written with his eye on the White House – Joe Klein of Time magazine counted “no fewer than 50 instances of excruciatingly judicious on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-handedness.” “I had to reconcile a lot of different threads growing up–race, class,” Obama told Klein. “For example, I was going to a fancy prep school, and my mother was on food stamps while she was getting her Ph.D.” Klein continued: “Obama believes his inability to fit neatly into any group or category explains his relentless efforts to understand and reconcile opposing views. But the tendency is so pronounced that it almost seems an obsessive-compulsive tic.”
Obama was in full “on-the-one-on-the-other-hand” mode in Cairo. Facts and ethics were putty in his hands as he constructed an “I’m ok, you’re ok, because we all are sinners” kind of world. Rejecting the “cycle of suspicion and discord” he sought a relationship between the United States and Muslims “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.” The speech took a series of flash points and extinguished them by balancing them out: Muslim “extremists” murdered Americans but America overstepped in response. America undermined Iran in the 1950s, and Iran responded harshly since the 1970s. Back and forth, back and forth, went Obama’s seesaw of history.
Similarly, Jews suffered persecution in Europe, especially during the Holocaust, but “[o]n the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people … have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” When discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict, Obama articulated his approach to history and diplomacy: “It is easy to point fingers,” he preached.… But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states….”
Obama’s Cairo speech paralleled his crucial March 18, 2008 speech, in Philadelphia, on race in America. At the time, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s unpatriotic ravings threatened Obama’s campaign. As the son of a black father and a white mother, acknowledging pain on both sides, Obama reconciled – or triangulated, as we used to say in Bill Clinton’s day. Obama said he could “no more disown” Wright, his spiritual mentor, “than I can my white grandmother,” who occasionally “uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.” Fans swooned, praising Obama’s evenhandedness; critics muttered that to get elected Obama would even run over his own grandmother.
Obama’s approach worked in Philadelphia – and charmed many Muslims in Cairo. This morally-blind accounting makes for bad history but it might make for effective diplomacy. It reduces tensions, and breaks through previous impenetrable barriers. But whether it can solve intractable problems, or overcome the evils that do exist, remains to be seen.
If Obama demonstrates the love-thy-neighbor touch of Jesus, Bibi Netanyahu is often consumed by the wrath of Jeremiah. Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech was less fiery than usual. But his argument was suffused with a tragic sense of history. Trained at MIT’s empiricist schools of architecture and business in the 1970s, raised by an historian father steeped in the tragedy of the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492, still mourning his brother killed by terrorists in 1976, Netanyahu feels the pain of yesterday warning us against the perils of today.
Rejecting Obama’s distorted view that Israel rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, Netanyahu reversed it saying, “if the state of Israel would have been established earlier, the Holocaust would not have occurred.” To Obama, because both Jews and Palestinian have been powerless, both merit saving. To Netanyahu, Jews’ “tragic history of powerlessness explains why the Jewish people need a sovereign power of self-defense.”
Netanyahu bristled at Obama’s deconstructionist refusal to point fingers. The “simple truth is that the root of the conflict was, and remains, the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own, in their historic homeland,” Netanyahu insisted. After chronicling Israel’s attempts at peace and Palestinian rejectionism, Netanyhau used history to rebut Obama’s recipe of land for peace. Unfortunately, “every withdrawal was met with massive waves of terror, by suicide bombers and thousands of missiles…. The claim that territorial withdrawals will bring peace with the Palestinians… has up till now not stood the test of reality.”
Two “truths” are colliding. Without letting go, as Obama advocates, there will never be peace; without remembering, as Netanyahu insists, unrealistic and dangerous pipedreams will proliferate. The Harvard philosopher George Santayana’s quip that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it has become cliché. Obama risks making that mistake. Despite his tremendous efforts, President Bill Clinton could not get Yasir Arafat to make the necessary compromises, on the Palestinian side. Instead, Clinton presided over the start of the terror wave that killed a thousand Israelis, and now haunts most Israelis as they yearn for peace. Do Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, or Clinton’s former aide and Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel ever remind the incumbent president about that debacle? But Santayana’s aphorism needs a qualifier: those who are imprisoned by the past are imprisoned. That is Netanyahu’s risk. Great statesmen seize the moment in the present to evolve from the past toward a better future. Whether Netanyahu or Obama can achieve such greatness remains to be seen.