Obama and the concept of even-handedness

I’ve been away for a bit and it’s given me a chance to mull over what President Obama (isn’t it strange how quickly we’ve got used to that) was up to in Cairo.

Many observers have taken this speech apart and pointed out how it has ushered in a whole new era of US-Israel politics where Israel can no longer get a free pass from the US and where the new administration has shifted US policy to a tough stance with the Israeli government on the question of settlements and, to a lesser extent, on easing restrictions in Gaza. The impression given is that it is Israel that has to make these concessions to move the peace process forward and that these demands are part of the Road Map agreements, blah, blah.

Many have pilloried the Cairo speech, many have praised it. It all depends on your viewpoint. If you have thought that Israel is the main impediment to the “peace process” then you will applaud Obama’s “tough love” stance. If you have believed that the Palestinians’ refusal to engage honestly in final status negotiations is the problem, then you will be appalled by Obama’s speech.

As so many have picked over the bones of the speech since the beginning of last month, I want to concentrate on the “big idea” behind the speech and why Obama wanted to follow the path of “even-handedness” .

Ah. But was it even-handed or was it heavily biased toward the Muslim world which was such a sea-change for an American president that it just seemed even-handed.

OK. Let’s just say the intention was even-handedness, not in the speech itself but in positioning the US in the eyes of the Muslim world as a more honest broker. To do this Obama had to be seen to be tough with Israel whilst paying little more than lip-service to what the Palestinians and the Arab world have to deliver.

Unfortunately for Israel, to redress the balance (or what Obama wanted to be seen as balance) he had to come down heavy on Netanyahu. This is transparent and not particularly credible posturing; most Arab and Muslim politicians said, “fine, but now we want action”. Subsequent exchanges between Jerusalem and Washington have gradually turned up the heat, evinced responses, but not had very much obvious effect on Israeli government policy.

Indeed, what is clear, is that the Israelis are keen on pursuing their own agenda to push forward the peace process and the two prominent signs of this are firstly, a rapid series of roadblock dismantlements on the West Bank accompanied by the recent “handover” to the Palestinian Authority of responsibility for day to day security in Judea and Samaria. Secondly, a measured expression of  the need for and the reasons behind Israel’s demand that the PA recognises Israel as the national home of the Jewish people. Of course, the settlement issue does not go away but there is a marked improvement in the life of Palestinians on the West Bank. Gaza and Hamas are a different matter, however.

But back to Obama.

Why ingratiate himself and his country with the Arab world? What are the US interests in any peace settlement in the Middle-East? Why does Obama want to be seen to be even-handed? What are the US national interests in rapprochement with the Muslim world, especially the Arab world and Iran? Is this the vanity of power? Does Obama see himself as a Messianic figure conferring peace and goodwill to the world? If so, what about North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba?

The answer is more simplistic than than the real issues that lie behind the questions. What is the major threat to the free world at the moment? Islamist terror and the spread of Jihadi philosphy. But, if Pakistan falls, if Afghanistan is re-Talebanised, if Iraq falls apart, if Iran acquires nuclear weapons?

The major impediment to neutralising Islamist extremism, according to the simplistic narrative of the US government, is the Arab-Israeli conflict. If you get that out of the way, all done and dusted, everyone reconciled, not only is that a huge Obama-legacy moment but it removes the excuse of the Israli-Palestinian conflict to foster the anti-US animus in the Muslim world. It takes the legs from under the Jihadi movement because the conflict which most animates them has been removed.

So goes the narrative. In fact, it’s a charade built on a hope, built on delusion.

Obama may well believe that he can persuade moderate Arabs and Muslims to defeat the Jihadis amongst them and move their societies into the 21st century, engaging with the West whilst retaining their own culture and history. A world where East and West meets and each learns from the other with mutual benefit and increased prosperity. If you remove the main cause of conflict, the world will be a better and safer place and we will will bathe in the light of the Pax Obama.

Nice story. But it is all based on a major misconception that Israel, Zionism and the Palestinians are the real cause of  Jihadism. In fact, they are just an excuse, a recruiting seregant, a source of malign and indignant rhetoric.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not end Islamism. The Jihadis will only be satisfied with the destruction of Israel and the Islamisation of the West. The Israelis and Palestinians must be reconciled but only because it is morally imperative that there be a just solution, not as part of an American global peace strategy.

In light of this, despite misgivings about the new Israeli government, so far, I agree with many of the things they are doing and the independent stance they are taking. For the Israellis, asking for more concessions from them without addressing the real nub of recognition of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, just does not wash.

Meanwhile, I wait to see how the Obama strategy pans out. Don’t hold your breath.