When expediency leaves a shadow

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Not so long ago, in a great land, there was a leader who did much good. And he had a wife who came from a noble family. But the leader took it upon himself to lay down with his maidservant, and begat a child, and in so doing split the family apart.

If you have been following the news over the past few weeks, you might well assume that I am talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger, but this story goes back further than that to around 1992. (And I mean BC and not AD.)

That was when Abraham (Ibrahim) took as his second wife the slave handmaiden Hagar (Hajra). Hagar gave birth to a son Ishmael (Ismail). Some 13 years later, Abraham’s first wife Sarah (Sara) also gave birth to a son, Isaac (Esack). Conflict between the wives resulted in Abraham setting Hagar and Ishmael free. They wandered into the desert and settled in what is today Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The children of Ishmael and the children of Isaac subsequently each laid claim to the heritage of the patriarch Abraham, and have been at war ever since. Over various periods in history, each has taken possession of Abraham’s ancestral land. Today, they are known to most of the world as Israelis and Palestinians.

From where I sit as an outsider and infidel (kafir), this is a tragic family feud – brother fighting brother, for generation upon generation, each visiting untold pain upon the other. It’s a conflict that could have ended decades ago had the world’s powers seen fit to put humanity ahead of political expediency.

Last week, US President Barack Obama did exactly that.

“For decades,” he said, “the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region. For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own.

“What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows -- a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.”

It took an extraordinary act of moral courage to utter those words, given that this is a president facing re-election with full knowledge that he would alienate a significant part of his electorate. Israeli prime minister Netanyahu was almost dripping contempt as he stood next to Obama and rejected his overtures.

Obama responded by going directly to Netanyahu’s power base, the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and repeating exactly what he said to Netanyahu. “This is not idealism; it is not naïveté. It is a hard-headed recognition that a genuine peace is the only path that will ultimately provide for a peaceful Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people and a Jewish state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.” He received tumultuous applause.

The Israeli prime minister is no doubt trying to work out exactly what happened to shift sentiment in Obama’s favour. I can explain.

There’s a 40 year old proverb which says “Only Nixon could go to China”. It was sparked by then US President Richard Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic of China, which began the normalisation of relations between the two countries. Today, the proverb refers to the ability of a politician with an unassailable reputation among his supporters for representing and defending their values to take actions that would draw their criticism and even opposition if taken by someone without those credentials.

And ironically, it was Obama’s decisiveness in violating international law to assassinate Bin Laden that has given him the moral high ground to challenge Netanyahu on his home turf, and thereby present the first real opportunity for peace in the Holy Land since the time of Abraham.