Blogs > HNN > Dueling Narratives: Obama’s Deconstructionist Diplomacy versus Netanyahu’s History as Tragedy

Jun 16, 2009 6:22 am

Dueling Narratives: Obama’s Deconstructionist Diplomacy versus Netanyahu’s History as Tragedy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on Sunday imitated yet countered U.S. President Barack Obama’s earlier speech in Cairo. Both leaders are best-selling authors, proud of their mastery of the written and spoken word. Both chose symbolically-significant university settings. Obama was co-hosted by Cairo University and Al-Azhar University, founded in 975, honoring Islam’s rich religious and political history. Netanyahu spoke at Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center of Strategic Studies. The setting invoked the two great peacemakers Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat at a modern Israeli religious Zionist university founded in 1955 whose emblem features the Torah as the eyepiece of a microscope. But in addition to their policy divergences, the dueling speeches reflect a fundamental clash of worldviews, with Netanyahu playing the historian to Obama the deconstructionist.

Barack Obama wants to synthesize, reconcile, heal. The son of a white Kansan mother and a black Kenyan father, he attended Harvard Law School during the Critical Legal Studies revolution, whose slogan “law is politics,” taught that law, like all human constructs, is mutable, and can be tailored to changing agendas. In his historic 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, Obama represented the red-white-and-blue American fording the overplayed red-blue and historic black-white divides. In reading Obama’s second book – written with his eye on the White House – Joe Klein of Time magazine counted “no fewer than 50 instances of excruciatingly judicious on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-handedness.” “I had to reconcile a lot of different threads growing up--race, class,” Obama told Klein. “For example, I was going to a fancy prep school, and my mother was on food stamps while she was getting her Ph.D.” Klein continued: “Obama believes his inability to fit neatly into any group or category explains his relentless efforts to understand and reconcile opposing views. But the tendency is so pronounced that it almost seems an obsessive-compulsive tic.”

Obama was in full “on-the-one-on-the-other-hand” mode in Cairo. Facts and ethics were putty in his hands as he constructed an “I’m ok, you’re ok, because we all are sinners” kind of world. Rejecting the “cycle of suspicion and discord” he sought a relationship between the United States and Muslims “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.” The speech took a series of flash points and extinguished them by balancing them out: Muslim “extremists” murdered Americans but America overstepped in response. America undermined Iran in the 1950s, and Iran responded harshly since the 1970s. Back and forth, back and forth, went Obama’s seesaw of history.

Similarly, Jews suffered persecution in Europe, especially during the Holocaust, but “[o]n the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people … have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” When discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict, Obama articulated his approach to history and diplomacy: “It is easy to point fingers,” he preached.… But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states….”

Obama’s Cairo speech paralleled his crucial March 18, 2008 speech, in Philadelphia, on race in America. At the time, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s unpatriotic ravings threatened Obama’s campaign. As the son of a black father and a white mother, acknowledging pain on both sides, Obama reconciled – or triangulated, as we used to say in Bill Clinton’s day. Obama said he could “no more disown” Wright, his spiritual mentor, “than I can my white grandmother,” who occasionally “uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.” Fans swooned, praising Obama’s evenhandedness; critics muttered that to get elected Obama would even run over his own grandmother.

Obama’s approach worked in Philadelphia – and charmed many Muslims in Cairo. This morally-blind accounting makes for bad history but it might make for effective diplomacy. It reduces tensions, and breaks through previous impenetrable barriers. But whether it can solve intractable problems, or overcome the evils that do exist, remains to be seen.

If Obama demonstrates the love-thy-neighbor touch of Jesus, Bibi Netanyahu is often consumed by the wrath of Jeremiah. Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech was less fiery than usual. But his argument was suffused with a tragic sense of history. Trained at MIT’s empiricist schools of architecture and business in the 1970s, raised by an historian father steeped in the tragedy of the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492, still mourning his brother killed by terrorists in 1976, Netanyahu feels the pain of yesterday warning us against the perils of today.

Rejecting Obama’s distorted view that Israel rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, Netanyahu reversed it saying, “if the state of Israel would have been established earlier, the Holocaust would not have occurred.” To Obama, because both Jews and Palestinian have been powerless, both merit saving. To Netanyahu, Jews’ “tragic history of powerlessness explains why the Jewish people need a sovereign power of self-defense.”

Netanyahu bristled at Obama’s deconstructionist refusal to point fingers. The “simple truth is that the root of the conflict was, and remains, the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own, in their historic homeland,” Netanyahu insisted. After chronicling Israel’s attempts at peace and Palestinian rejectionism, Netanyhau used history to rebut Obama’s recipe of land for peace. Unfortunately, “every withdrawal was met with massive waves of terror, by suicide bombers and thousands of missiles…. The claim that territorial withdrawals will bring peace with the Palestinians… has up till now not stood the test of reality.”

Two “truths” are colliding. Without letting go, as Obama advocates, there will never be peace; without remembering, as Netanyahu insists, unrealistic and dangerous pipedreams will proliferate. The Harvard philosopher George Santayana’s quip that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it has become cliché. Obama risks making that mistake. Despite his tremendous efforts, President Bill Clinton could not get Yasir Arafat to make the necessary compromises, on the Palestinian side. Instead, Clinton presided over the start of the terror wave that killed a thousand Israelis, and now haunts most Israelis as they yearn for peace. Do Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, or Clinton’s former aide and Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel ever remind the incumbent president about that debacle? But Santayana’s aphorism needs a qualifier: those who are imprisoned by the past are imprisoned. That is Netanyahu’s risk. Great statesmen seize the moment in the present to evolve from the past toward a better future. Whether Netanyahu or Obama can achieve such greatness remains to be seen.

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N. Friedman - 6/24/2009


The issue is the confusion between purchasing land and conquering land. Objecting to the purchase of land amounts to objecting to the fundamental human right to migrate to a place where refuge can be obtained.

That should not, however, be confused with the right of the local Arab population to object to the specific politics of those Jews who migrated to the land. Such was certainly within the rights of the local Arab population.

On the other hand, the real issue here is the form of that objection, which took on a conspiratorial, religious and racist tone whereby no reconciliation or compromise was possible. And, that resulted in a war that was unnecessary because the Jewish side had no imaginable reason to start a fight, given its political circumstances and, to considerable extent, its goals.

It seems to me that if one thinks of the return of Jews as a conquest - which I think is really the wrong paradigm -, then one must see it as being akin to other liberation movements. In that regard, the liberation of Greece from the Ottoman Empire comes to mind.

Were one to hold a consistent position on Israel's founding in line with Oscar's conquest theory, one would have to rethink a substantial amount of ideology that now comes out of the political Left. After all, how is Greece's liberation from Muslim rule any different from Israel's liberation from British and/or Arab rule? It is not any different, theoretically speaking - at least if one accepts Oscar's analysis. So, why the objection to Israel but not to Greece.

Your analysis, on the other hand, which points out that the Arabs were conquerors and that the land was once ruled by Jews is certainly based on true facts. But, in my view, it does not explain why non-Jews must accept the claim made by Jews.

In that regard, your argument has the same weakness that any argument supporting a country's existence has weakness, namely, there is no necessity that outsiders accept the the claim. That is why, in my estimate, there is no sense in trying to justify any country's existence. In fact, to assert a justification is to open yourself up to the fact that someone else will seek to show a lack of justification. Think dialectic.

Better to assert merely that your country will defend itself than to open yourself up to arguments that your country is not justified. No doubt that people like Oscar will say that your country was the result of conquest. You can respond that such is not so but were that the case, Israel would be no different from any other country - since that is the origin of most, if not all, of the world's countries.

Elliott Aron Green - 6/24/2009

Oscar, recall that the Arab Conquest of the 7th century --including Israel and the rest of the Fertile Crescent-- was done without the consent of the majority of the population in those several countries. It was an alien imposition. After the Conquest, the conquerors imposed a system of legal inferiority, humiliation, and exploitation on the conquered peoples called dhimma, Jews and others.
Jews living in the Land of Israel were always in the status of dhimmis while under Muslim rule.

The Jews elsewhere in the world never stopped dreaming of a return to the Land that was theirs before the Arab Conquest.

Of course, Jews in Israel are often accused of unjustly settling in a land belonging to others, a charge that you seem to repeat. Now, if you really believe in the principle of not settling, then maybe you ought to pack up and go back to the British Isles.

N. Friedman - 6/23/2009


In 1939, Israel's position was advocated by purchasing land. So far as I know, that is not force of arms or conquest.

On the other hand, in that period, the leadership of Palestine's Arabs sought a pact with the Nazis. In due course, they reached an agreement to do in historic Palestine what was being done in Europe. Such has been meticulously documented by Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cuppers. A shortened version of the history can be found here. As well known writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, in his book, Left in Dark Times:

First, that Arab anti-Semitism was not, as is always said, a circumstantial anti-Semitism, mainly linked to English support for the nascent Israeli state, which the Arabs therefore saw as a colonial creation: Germany, says the Grand Mufti in a statement the authors discovered, is "the only country in the world that has not merely fought the Jews at home but have declared war on the entirety of world Jewry; in this war against world Jewry, the Arabs feel profoundly connected to Germany"—one could hardly put it better! And second, that there was, stationed in Athens, under the orders of the Obersturmbannführer Walther Rauff the very same man who refined and then developed the use of gas trucks at Auschwitz, a special intervention force, the Einsatzgruppe Ägypten, intended to reach Palestine and liquidate the 500,000 European Jews who had already taken refuge in the Yishuv in the event Rommel won the battle of the desert: this was an Arab unit, and it was al- Husseini who, there again, in his conversations with Eichmann, had put the final touches on the intervention plan, which should indicate his full and entire participation in the Final Solution; and only Montgomery's victory at El Alamein stymied the project for extermination.

Historical negationism allows the purchase of land to be confused with conquest. Why, Oscar, adopt the Arab myth of what occurred? The Arab side is simply not wholly innocent in the dispute. In fact, what the Israelis did was not a conquest. It was a community defending itself from being annihilated. That is clearly shown by Benny Morris' research. See his book, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War.

As for today, Obama seems, at least for now, to have adopted the Arab narrative of events. Whether that is his considered position - in which case, he has fallen, like you seem to have, for propaganda - or, instead, a feint, remains to be seen. But, the Israelis, for the most part, are behaving as any state under attack behaves. It is not a pretty picture but that does not turn it into conquest.

Conquering countries do not cede large swaths of land, which is what the Israelis have done. Think about it.

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/23/2009

"Unfortunately, Prof Troy missed the continuity between Pres Obama's rejection of Jewish "settlements" and British policy circa 1939-1940."

The primary continuity is that British actions in 1939 and current Israeli actions were both asserted by right of conquest and without regard to the majorities in those locations.

Elliott Aron Green - 6/17/2009

Pres Obama's Cairo speech was quite a bit disingenuous rather than what Prof Troy seems to think.

Obama said in Cairo, "Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries..." This leaves open the possibility that Arabs too persecuted Jews, which is historically true and well-documented. However, Obama did not say specifically that Arabs too had oppressed or persecuted Jews throughout Islamic history -- or all non-Muslims for that matter. It remains a mere possible inference by the hearer who may read into that sentence what he likes. This is not helpful to peacemaking, especially since Arab spokesmen and govts and political movements [such as PLO/Fatah and Hamas] are invariably self-righteous and never or almost never admit any wrongdoing of any sort or any offense against anybody.

On account of this attitude, the Arabs are also never or almost never ready to compromise on anything. Hence, if peacemaking requires compromise, then it is important to put the Arabs in a position where they are reminded of their own offenses against Jews. That may in turn lead to more willingness to compromise. However, Obama did not use the opportunity that he had to nudge the Arabs in the direction of acknowledging their own offenses. This cannot help peacemaking.

On another issue, Obama did not express himself in a future-oriented, forgiving mode. Some things he did not forgive. And his officials too have expressed themselves in the same hostile, unforgiving manner. I refer to the Administration's position on "Jewish settlements" which, Obama's spokespersons say, must not even be allowed construction for "natural growth," such as schools for children coming of school age, homes for adult children of settlement residents, that is, those who were born and had grown up on the settlement, etc., although Judea-Samaria were parts of the internationally designated Jewish National Home [San Remo 1920, League of Nations 1922, UN charter 1945 (Article 80)]. Instead of acceptance of the free choice of Jews to live in Judea-Samaria, Obama said in Cairo:

The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

This attitude is hardly one of accepting human life as it is. Further, it is all too reminiscent of British policy, which in 1939-1940 promulgated [illegally under international law] a White Paper limiting Jewish immigration into the Jewish National Home when the Jews most needed a home and forbade Jewish land purchase in most of the Jewish National Home. Judea-Samaria were parts of the forbidden zone, although in the Jerusalem area Jews were allowed to purchase real estate from non-Muslim owners. Unfortunately, Prof Troy missed the continuity between Pres Obama's rejection of Jewish "settlements" and British policy circa 1939-1940. I fear that Prof Troy missed some of Obama's subtlety and disingenousness.