When it comes to seeking peace in the Middle East, we have been conditioned to hope for grand and dramatic moments that will mark the beginning of the end of the fear and mistrust that divides the region.
We remember President Clinton’s outstretched arms on a sunny day in September 1993, framing the extraordinary handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yassir Arafat.
We remember Rabin’s heartfelt words, “We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today, in a loud and a clear voice, enough of blood and tears … enough!”
We remember feeling that the future was full of promise, alive with the potential for peace. And yet now when we think back to those big moments – to Camp David, Madrid, Oslo, Wye River – we wonder whether it was all just so much naivete. Many have lost hope altogether.
But could it be instead that our expectations have become outsized? Perhaps we are foolish to long for the dramatic flourish, when we should be at least as satisfied with incremental progress that, over time, may prove more durable.
While there is something undeniably powerful in those iconic moments when leaders emerge from behind closed doors to announce that the world has changed, there are also situations best resolved through dialogue conducted in the quiet and often opaque world of diplomacy.
If this is the case, and I believe it is in the Middle East, there may be reason for cautious optimism in the wake of President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel and the West Bank last week.
Obama spoke candidly to the Israeli people in what is already regarded as a historic speech, asking them, after having assured them repeatedly of America’s unwavering support, to put themselves in the shoes of their Palestinian neighbors. He used the term “occupation,” a third-rail word in Israeli politics, to describe Israel’s presence in the West Bank. He dared publicly to get in the face, albeit with his accustomed rhetorical eloquence, of Israel’s leadership.
While this could not have pleased Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it surely came as no surprise. It was undoubtedly the first step of a carefully choreographed pivot that would next take the president to Ramallah.
Many Israelis were furious that the president spoke so directly and pointedly to them, while sparing Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas and the Palestinian people an equally forceful message.
In fact, public humiliation of Abbas (in the form of a speech to Palestinians analogous to what he delivered to Israelis) would have forced Abbas into a position of continued defiance. Remember, this is a leader whose greatest threat comes not from Israel, but from his revolutionary “brethren,” Hamas, in Gaza. Abbas can only survive politically if he is given the cover needed to make the concessions he must ultimately make.
Thus I expect we will eventually come to learn that Obama forcefully leaned upon Abbas to return to the negotiating table without precondition, to drop the chest-thumping tropes about martyrdom, and to cease attributing every difficulty to Israeli settlements.
Obama took the measure of Israel’s robust and raucous politics and judged that public engagement would work in Jerusalem. He took the measure of Palestinian culture and politics and knew that it would not work in Ramallah.
In the end, Obama tossed Abbas an enormous bone, and Abbas knows it. He gave the Arab world a speech to the Israeli people in which he asked them to confront harsh realities. He dislodged the needle of political discourse in Israel from its stable if ultimately untenable position, and moved it to a spot in which the potential for negotiations exists once again. He convinced Israelis that they are not alone, and that he has their back. And he put the ball squarely in Abbas’ court.
So now it is up to Abbas to respond, and it is no coincidence that Secretary of State John Kerry is in the region this week.
Still, don’t expect the networks to interrupt regular programming with reports of a breakthrough. A breakthrough, if and when it comes, will be less the result of a grand gesture than the culmination of quiet, calculated and discrete conversations that can only be had away from the cameras and far from the glare of the klieg lights.
In the current environment, freedom, security and prosperity in the Middle East are most likely to be achieved when none of us are looking.
Perry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe. He is also chairman of the Maine District Export Council. His website is perrybnewman.com.