Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama In Cairo: Going Meta

Immediately after President Obama's speech, Israeli television interviewed a strapping West Bank settler: "It was very professional," he said, "very well crafted. It focused brilliantly on the rights of man. But he also quoted the Talmud; and if he read that, then he knows that the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel."

This curious response suggests why, yet again, Obama's instincts are better than mine.

You see, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is full of people like this. In the end they will have to be confronted. But though the end cannot be allowed to seem far away, the end is not the beginning. Why push people into a corner before showing them the corner--before showing them also the people who will be pushing with you? Why not take things in their natural sequence which allows everybody to adjust to the new reality?

Obama's problem, however, was that if he didn't do something dramatic, he ran the risk of losing the people he would need for his coalition even before he began to rally them--because so many presidents have made promises in the past (condemned settlements, called for a two-state solution) and then remembered something better they had to do. Obama, I thought, should not miss this chance to issue some concrete warning or present the elements of a concrete plan--something vivid to stand for the sincerity of his intention--to reassure people who had heard it all before, especially the people in the streets from Casablanca to Islamabad, who were after all the point of the exercise.

Of course there was another way to prove his sincerity, which hadn't really occurred to me. It was to frame the whole problem in such a subtle and honest--and vivid--way that nobody hearing the speech could doubt his sincerity; to go meta on the problem and make his intentions clear to anyone (that settler included, obviously) without needing to make threats or draw up plans. (The final deal is obvious, anyway.)

And it was foolish of me not to anticipate this solution, since this is exactly what he did with his speech on race. Obama is many things, but I'm coming to understand that he is, almost more than anything else, a natural teacher. He knows how to start from where his audience is and connect the dots. He knows the ring of truth. (Just to be sure, I called a couple of Palestinian friends who were skeptical when Obama was elected. They were deeply impressed--certainly enough to stay in the "process.")

The speech did have a few innovations, moreover, which were moving in the elegant way they broke taboos. Obama not only spoke about the need to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but did so in a way that laid the ground for eventually getting nuclear weapons out of the entire region, Israel included. He plausibly linked the toppling of Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953 with the kidnapping of American diplomats in 1979. He spoke of human rights and the rule of law in Egypt without appearing to undermine Mubarak. Obama said in a way that could not have offended Jews that the holocaust engendered a tragic injustice for the Palestinians. Finally, and most important, he made the justice of a Palestinian state seem an American interest without denying unbreakable links to Israel, that is, the state Israel would be once a deal is done.

It is a little frightening how indispensable this man is becoming.