Sunday, March 28, 2010

A modest proposal

Ira Sharkansky

It may be time for Barack Obama to visit the Knesset.

Anwar Sadat's visit in 1977, and his opening words "In the name of God, Mr. Speaker of the Knesset, ladies and gentlemen...I come to you today on solid ground to shape a new life and to establish peace" brought tears to more than a few Israeli eyes, broke through barriers of distrust, and helped to make possible the agreements reached 10 months later at Camp David. One should not exaggerate the influence of public opinion on government policy. It may be marginal to much of foreign policy crafted in secret meetings designed to keep the media at bay. However, Israelis' distrust of the American President reminds us of the feeling about Egyptians prior to that Knesset speech. At the very least, it does not make it easy for the population or the government to look with favor on what the President and Secretary of State are demanding.

The latest poll commissioned by the Jerusalem Post shows that only 9 percent of the Jewish population think that Barack Obama is on their side.

An earlier poll commissioned by Ha'aretz indicates that more than a quarter thinks that he is an anti-Semite.

On the other hand, signs are that a visit to the Knesset at this time would be pointless. Better that the President concentrate his charms on Ramallah, and then try Gaza before approaching Jerusalem.

Insofar as he has decided to reestablish diplomatic relations with Syria, the President might visit Damascus on his way to Jerusalem and ask President Assad if he wants to come along. They can flip a coin to see who speaks first when they get to the Knesset.

The essence of Israeli criticism, as I perceive it from conversations with leftist colleagues at the university and listening to no end of officials and ordinary citizens is why is he picking on us, when his more serious problems are with the Palestinians. Some of those problems are of long standing, claiming national rights to pre-1967 armistice lines long obscured by population movement, and a return of refugees to homes that no longer exist. Some are the product of the Obama administration, insisting on no construction in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem as a precondition for even indirect negotiations.

There is also considerable agreement that the bombast and slippery lack of reliability shown by Israel's Prime Minister are part of the problem, along with fanatics making a point about moving into Arab neighborhoods known for their extremist hatred of Jews.

The best interim solution is to do nothing. The Prime Minister should not respond to the President's insistence for an early response to his demands. By some reports, the deadline for a response has already passed, and we are on the verge of the Passover holiday. The ground may be laid for bi-lateral silence. The President and his colleagues can use the time to think about how far they have gotten toward the goal of peace--or even friendly conversations--in this neighborhood.

The period for this "interim" solution may be quite long, at least until there are signs of moderation in the Palestinian camp.

This proposal may be nothing more than the latest foolishness of a policy observer, without a party label, who claims an ego smaller than those of the Israeli Prime Minister or American President.

Don't laugh too loudly. I am serious, if somewhat less than optimistic.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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