The Future of Peace Is In the Past
Today President Obama arrived in Israel for his first official visit to the Jewish State since being elected to high office in 2008. His trip, while lauded by many as a continuing sign of the important relationship shared between the United States and Israel, is also circumspect to those who consider this President’s approach towards Israel as less then amicable. But whichever side of the debate one chooses to support, it is increasingly clear that President Obama’s brief journey to the Holy Land is as much about where he is visiting as it is about where he is not.
Topping the agenda, the President will on Thursday address a group of mostly Israeli university students at Jerusalem’s convention center. The speech, which is said to be the main reason for this trip is already garnering considerable criticism for those who are and are not invited to attend it. On Friday, he is scheduled to visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, and mount Herzl where he will lay wreaths in recognition of modern-day Zionism at the grave of its founding father Theodore Herzl, and that of the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Missing from the President’s route will most notably be the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, nor will he address or visit the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, as the four previous Presidents to visit Israel have, both of which are customary for many visiting dignitaries.
His decision not to visit the Wall or “Kotel” as its popularly known, while regrettable is understandable from the administration’s point of view. President Obama comes to the region looking to restart the dormant Middle East peace process and wants to be seen as evenhanded to both Israelis and Palestinians alike. The Old City, located across the pre-1967 armistice line is contentious territory in the Arab world, and though Israel has promised never to divide it again, is best avoided by the President in the context of his visit. But as he attempts to avoid offending Arab sentiments President Obama is clearly stepping on those who he means to persuade toward peace. By not going to the Wall which is Judaism and Israel’s most sacred symbol of its heritage and perseverance, the President’s message though possibly unintentional relegates the facts of Israel’s history to an arbitrary and undetermined future.
More disconcerting than the President’s chosen course however is the amenability of the Israeli government to his agenda. However, faced with an impending nuclear Iran, and a futile peace process to which Israel in the eyes of the international community is often to blame, President Obama’s overture of friendship is much-needed at this time and his schedule unquestioned. As one Likud minister recently told me when asked about the itinerary, his nervous laugh unmistakable, “We cannot tell the American President where he should or should not go”. Though were it not so. Israel cannot expect to win every diplomatic row nor should it feel the necessity to address every challenge, but it must not relinquish the ability to dictate the framework of events, large or small, that influence its very life and future.
In Israel’s war of public diplomacy, those who would deny it the legitimacy of its existence have an often repeated argument that has found acceptance not only among the hateful and ignorant, but in academia and some diplomatic circles as well. Namely, that the State of Israel was created by the United Nations in acquiescence to the Zionist movement and as a response to European anti-Semitism, which culminating in the Holocaust created a Jewish refugee problem at that time. Israel, the claim continues has unjustly usurped the land it now inhabits and thus has no right to exist in that space.
Those who would believe this nonsense have their own reasons to do so, though it must be said that they are partially right in so much as Zionism and the Holocaust were both important catalysts for the creation of the state. But in the grand scheme of three and a half thousand years of Jewish history in the land of Israel they are woefully wrong, and the Western Wall is a testament to that undeniable truth.
President Obama’s visit to Yad Vashem and Herzl’s tomb among other events, acknowledges the contemporary aspects of Israel, its struggle, survival, and success. And though he speaks of Israel as the ancient homeland of the Jewish people, avoiding the Western Wall altogether plays directly into the hands of those who would deny its past. Though the President will undoubtedly ask Israelis for some painful concessions in the quest for peace, they will in all likelihood never vacate the Kotel again. But as the negotiator-in-chief who by his words and actions outlines the structure of the debate for peace, the President by cutting at the roots of it will leave an already precarious discussion that much weaker.