Over the past 96 hours, the international press has published one article after another regarding President Barack Obama’s visit to the Middle East. Promoted by the White House and his supporters, and denounced by the neo-cons and right wing conservatives, the speech has generated opinions galore.
What’s most disturbing for me is the political nitpicking and dissecting of the president’s speech, the hanging onto every word without taking into consideration his audience, his overall goals and objectives, and the possible outcome in its deliverance. More annoying are the academics and policy wonks who analyze the most, yet have never set foot in a mosque or synagogue. They wouldn’t know the difference between an Israeli or Arab dish and their firsthand and personal knowledge of the Middle East is out of the classroom or a guided tour with a school or foundation.
During the recent media hype over CIA policies on harsh interrogations during the Bush administration, the Democrats tried to do everything in their power to go back in time to analyze and criminalize the policies involved. The White House, the president and even his critics said that we should be looking forward and not backward when it comes to the CIA’s interrogations.
In the recent articles concerning the president’s visit to the Middle East, his critics are ripping him to shreds for his efforts, citing prior attempts by former administrations and then going back in time trying to analyze and break down the history of the region dating back to when Arabs and Jews lived as one, before British and French rule.
Why aren’t we looking forward instead of backward – again?
As an outsider looking in, trying to put politics aside and honestly thinking about what’s best for our country – I think there may be a chance – a real chance – that this president can negotiate and accomplish a peace plan when others could not. More so, in the course of working his magic (as many have called it), Obama may accomplish something far more important to me than just peace itself, and that is the neutralization of the radical extremist leadership, their supportive following and the threats of terror to the western world and Muslims alike.
The president has called for a redoubling of efforts towards a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying he would like to see progress within a year. Be it a year or four or eight, it is all going to depend on one thing: trust!
The Arab world must trust him, which has been a crucial problem for the peace process in the past and perhaps rightfully so. We promote freedom and democracy around the world and I believe we should.
However, we need to realize that through that process could come results not to our liking, such as Hamas in Palestine or Hezbollah in Lebanon. We can’t turn around then and say, “Oh sorry, that doesn’t count.” It doesn’t mean that we then have to continue our financial or diplomatic support for that country. There should be a law in place that absolutely prohibits us from funding any state sponsor of terror in any way. Anything other than that, we’re sending mixed messages and that is what creates that distrust.
When it comes to trust, it all but it appears that, at least for now, the president has cleared that hurdle.
In his speech in Cairo, Obama was criticized for not mentioning "terrorists" or "terrorism," just "violent extremists," and for using frequent references to the "Holy Koran" and echoes of Muslim phrases - but given the audience and his agenda, I don’t blame him.
In discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict, the president was both resolute in expressing support for Israel which we must be, and sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians.
He talked about America's "unbreakable" bond with Israel and condemned anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, obviously referring to the president of Iran and his demented anti-Israeli rhetoric. The president seemed to equalize the Jewish and Palestinian suffering, noting the daily humiliations that come with occupation.
Many Palestinians said he “made everyone feel close and at home" when the he quoted from the holy books of all three faiths - Islam, Christianity and Judaism. But, naturally he drew mostly on the Koran as well as other Islamic religious teachings to provide the spiritual underpinnings of his speech, given the audience. Most importantly, he used verses from the Koran to support his arguments, allowing them to realize that although they were his ideas, the actual words had come from their own religion.
For the audience he wanted to address, his speech appeared by all accounts to be a success and now that audience will now be looking for action rather than dialogue.
The key now is whether he can have the same impact on Israel and the Israeli leadership. Will they trust him, as do the Muslims - an American president with Muslim roots and an understanding for the Muslim religion and culture that perhaps surpasses any president during our time?
Like him or not, Obama may be able to pull this off and accomplish something that no one else has been able to do. Trust and dialogue will begin to set the stage and moving forward and not backward will be equally as important. Getting Israel to agree to a two-state solution may be the sticking point, but think of the benefits to world peace that can come of this.
Lastly, and what I see as equally if not more important, could be the grand prize!
The Palestinian issue is the primary “cause” that Islamic extremists, supporters and sympathizers continually rally around. It is the one excuse that they all turn to in their attempts for recruitment for suicide bombers and soliciting funds.
What if that rallying cry was eliminated and the extremist leadership like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri had no movement to sell? The Muslim population who has historically supported the extremist groups based on the Palestinian issue would decrease their support and question their motives for such activity. This could be one of the greatest accomplishments in combating global terror for the entire international community including Israel.
However, it all has to play out for us to win the grand prize.
On Oct. 3, 1960, His Late Majesty, King Hussein of Jordan spoke before the United Nations in New York City. He later wrote in a memoir that one of the most important reasons behind his decision to speak that day was the “still unanswered problem of Palestine.” Think about it; one of the greatest leaders in the Middle East in our time was concerned about the “unanswered problem of Palestine” 49 years ago and that problem still haunts us.
Democrats or Republicans; Christians, Jews or Muslims . . . we should all pray and hope that this works. For world peace and the safety and security of our children and theirs as well… let’s hope that President Obama has what it takes to get this done.
The whole world is depending on it.
Bernard B. Kerik is chairman of The Kerik Group and a former police commissioner for New York City.
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