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In The Middle East, Obama Is The Wild Card


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Israel, the Palestinians, the United States. Each party is banking on the other. The Palestinians and the Israelis are banking on the failure of the resumption of direct talks. The United States is banking on the talks to succeed.

Palestinians are banking on the talks failing because of the deadline of the settlement moratorium, banking that Israel will not keep to its end of this agreement. Israelis are banking on the talks failing because of security issues and because the failure to follow through with follow-up has plagued the Palestinians in all previous talks.

The United States is banking on itself, convinced of its own vision for the Middle East in general and the future of the Israelis and Palestinians in particular. The United States continues to plod on, unconcerned and oblivious to the warning pronouncements, dire predictions and palpable pessimism displayed by the real players in this drama.

And that perplexes Israel and the Palestinians.

Neither Israelis nor Palestinians have been able to get inside the head of Barack Obama. They do not understand this president and they cannot comprehend how he comes to his personal point of view vis-à-vis their lives and their future. They know he is not an anti-Semite, they know he is not in the pocket of the Saudis – and that is all they are sure of.

For Israel and the Palestinians, Obama is a wild card.

I think I understand Obama. And here is what I think: this president of the United States is motivated by an overwhelming sense of justice.

This sense of justice permeates everything in Obama’s world. It is the essence of all his policy decisions – foreign and domestic. It feeds his unquenchable thirst for change. For the administration on Pennsylvania Avenue, “change” is not an expression – it is a gestalt. For Barack Obama, “change” is a word that encapsulates the concept of righting past wrongs and transforming reality. The concept is electrifying. It is how he won the election.

Some world leaders are charismatic. Barack Obama is electrified; he is charged.

It makes no difference that Obama’s world philosophy and decision-making run into obstacles. In his mind he has justice behind him, justice propelling him, justice surrounding his every decision. The previous problems in the Middle East do not deter him, the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict does not detract from his mission. Righting past wrongs and fighting for a better situation is what defines Barack Obama.

As a result, neither reality nor history factors into Obama’s evaluation process. From his perch, there is no place for history – only the present and the future exist. His own personal history – or more precisely, lack thereof – is the best illustration of the way in which Obama has successfully navigated through life.

Obama sees the good in everyone. He believes people will make the best, most advantageous choice. He believes that when mutually advantageous choices are made, all involved parties will benefit. For Obama, reality only impacts the analysis at the stage of applying his vision. And even then, reality is seen as an obstacle to be overcome – where in normative analysis, reality is the starting point.

Past experience has nothing to do with achieving new ends and implementing new policy. This is the Obama perspective on health care, it is his point of view on international affairs. Iran is not bad and Ahmadinejad is not bad. Ahmadinejad is just misguided, as are Syria and Venezuela. That is the only way we can understand Obama’s handshake with Chavez and his graciously accepting a book given him by the dictator, a book that lists the purported sins of U.S. history.

Obama will extend his hand to everyone and shake the hand of every leader. Obama plays by the rules he himself compiles and adheres to his own time schedule. Right now he is shouting “carpe diem” – seize the moment – and “Don’t let this opportunity slip through our fingers” into the ears of Netanyahu and Abbas. He is repeatedly saying things like “This moment of opportunity may not soon come again” and “They cannot afford to let it slip away” in describing the talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

The reality, however, is that this moment is totally artificial and purely man- made. The meeting was forced on both parties. Actually, the timing is terrible.

The big event at the White House happened the day before the Labor Day weekend. Now comes Rosh Hashanah and after that, from September 10-13, the three-day Muslim holiday called Id al Fitr, followed by Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The reality is that until October, there is no actual time to sit down.

Clearly, there was no burning need to talk just now.

It was Obama’s personal fire that needed to be extinguished; the Middle East has been smoldering for a long time.

So where does that leave the Palestinians and the Israelis? It leaves them in an untenable situation. Nobody wants to upset Washington, nobody wants to be the first to destroy the dream.

Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book, “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World,” is available at Amazon.com. He maintains The Micah Report at www.micahhalpern.com.

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