The Issue: Baby steps to achieve a Middle East peace

By MARCELLA S. KREITER, United Press International   |  March 24, 2013 at 4:30 AM
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Baby steps. As U.S. President Barack Obama has conceded, the chance for a grand plan when it comes to the federal budget appears to be dead. And last week, he indicated a comprehensive plan for peace in the Middle East appears to be a distant hope as well.

So, baby steps.

Obama spent part of last week in Israel, his first trip to the Holy Land since becoming president. But instead of laying out a grand plan to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, he urged both sides to rethink their positions and come up with a new way of looking at the conflict and what can be achieved.

Gentle nudging instead of pressure -- walking softly but carrying no big stick, the new U.S. approach.

And considering the banners and posters pairing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with the late Yasser Arafat, incremental progress may be the only approach available.

Obama made light of his often prickly relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

"Now I know that in Israel's vibrant democracy, every word and gesture is carefully scrutinized. But just so you know, any drama between me and my friend Bibi over the years was just a plot to create material for 'Eretz Nehederet' [a satirical Israeli television show that translates to 'A Wonderful Land']," Obama said in an address to the Israeli people at the Jerusalem Convention Center, later reassuring the audience the United States is dedicated to Israel's security.

"Make no mistake: those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel's right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere. Today, I want to tell you -- particularly the young people -- that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd [you are not alone]," he said.

But the calculus of peace has been changed in the last two years by the Arab Spring.

"Peace must be made among peoples, not just governments," Obama counseled. "No one step can change overnight what lies in the hearts and minds of millions. But progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin while sidelining extremists who thrive on conflict and division."

So, baby steps, starting with empathy.

"Put yourself in their shoes -- look at the world through their eyes," Obama urged Israelis. "It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands, to restrict a student's ability to move around the West Bank, or to displace Palestinian families from their home[s]. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land."

At the same time, he said, Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with people who want its destruction.

So a first step was taken by Netanyahu Friday with a call to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Israeli-Turkish relations have been strained for several years because of the deaths of nine people aboard the Mavi Mara, a Turkish ship boarded by Israeli soldiers as it tried to help break the blockage against Gaza.

A senior administration official told reporters Netanyahu told Erdogan "he regretted that that incident had led to a deterioration in their relations" and acknowledged operational mistakes had been made.

The apology opened the way for restoration of full diplomatic relations.

In a recent interview with UPI, Elliott Abrams, who held diplomatic positions in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, recommended this "incremental" approach.

"What can we do now that makes things a little bit better?" Abrams asked, noting Israel was built over decades and didn't materialize full-blown when the United Nations announced its creation in 1948. "If there's going to be a state of Palestine, it is going to be built institution by institution over time. Maybe it will work."

So maybe the answer for overall peace and security in the region is economic.

"One of the great ironies of what is happening in the broader region is that so much of what people are yearning for -- education and entrepreneurship; the ability to start a business without paying a bribe, to connect to the global economy -- those things can be found in Israel," Obama said, noting Israel "is a nation of museums and patents, timeless holy sites and ground-breaking innovation. ... This should be a hub for thriving regional trade, and an engine of opportunity. And this is already a center for innovation that helps power the global economy. I believe that all of that potential for prosperity can be enhanced with greater security, and a lasting peace."

Obama recognized what Israel means to Jews.

"For the Jewish people, the journey to the promise of the state of Israel wound through countless generations," he said. "It involved centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice, pogroms and even genocide. Through it all, the Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home. And while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea -- to be a free people in your homeland.

"That is why I believe that Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea: the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own. And over the last 65 years, when Israel has been at its best, Israelis have demonstrated that responsibility does not end when you reach the promised land, it only begins."

So maybe Israel and the Palestinians could take a page from the Bible. Upon Abraham's death, some scholars say, Isaac and Ishmael reconciled. With their parents dead -- a jealous Sarah had convinced Abraham to turn Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, out into the desert -- the family conflict was over.

Well, Arafat is gone. So is Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Hafez Assad of Syria. Time to move on.

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