Obama: Walking on Israel in Chamberlain’s Shoes?

Neville Chamberlain’s three years (1937-1940) as British Prime Minister earned him infamy in Jewish history. His appeasement policy enabled Germany to become a giant by subversion of Austria and Czechoslovakia. And, his desire to appease Arabs and Muslims the British were still ruling India prompted the virtual closure of Palestine to Jewish migration in 1939, when Jews were desperately seeking refuge from Nazi oppression. The international commitment to the Jewish People had been explicit in declarations, treaties and enactments from 1917 to 1922, when the League of Nations created Palestine as “national home for the Jewish People.” But, this was no concern of Chamberlain who wrote: “Jews are not a lovable people; I don’t care about them myself.”

As tension now grows over Iran’s race to develop nuclear weapons, President Obama seeks rapprochement with the Muslim world, including Iran. Can we ask if there are similarities between Obama and Chamberlain? With scant foreign-policy experience, both came to office with an abundance of self-confidence to lead a declining Great Power with acute fiscal troubles and far too many global responsibilities. And, each arrived with a strongly held belief that international sins of his own country had to be made right as part of an energetic search for a general peace. Thus, Chamberlain saw the 1919 Versailles Treaty as a draconian imposition that had driven Germany to Nazi dictatorship. Similarly, Obama blames the USA and the West for colonialism and imperialism that are seen to have injured the developing countries, including the Muslim World. And, like Chamberlain, Obama reaches out to opponents, acknowledges their suffering and seems to promise reparation for past wrongs.

History’s verdict is that Chamberlain was astonishingly naive. As for Obama, it is too early to say whether he will follow Chamberlain’s path in seeking to appease dangerous opponents at the expense of friends. Chamberlain betrayed Czechoslovakia in 1938. And, had Hitler agreed to refrain from using force in 1939, Chamberlain was then prepared to offer Germany large parts of Poland’s territory. Assuredly, the Chamberlain-Obama comparison is invidious and, in this partisan vein, it was raised during the USA presidential campaign. Now the comparison deserves fresh consideration, particularly in the light of Obama’s June 4th Cairo speech to the Muslim World.

In Cairo, Obama sought the appearance of even handedness in discussing the long-standing dispute between Israel and its Arab neighbours. But, read with an eye to the moral context, his Cairo speech was profoundly anti-Israel. This anti-Israel bias was camouflaged by a dramatic reference to the Holocaust and by other acknowledgements of Jewish suffering. Obama was likely advised that such sentiments would resonate with USA Jews. However, Israelis were too canny to be fooled by the Cairo speech, after which public opinion polls there saw his approval rate drop like a stone.

The meaning of “dissimulation” includes speech calculated to cause belief in something which the speaker has not literally said. Is dissimulation dishonest? An answer depends on the context, but honest or not, dissimulation has always been one of the main elements of statecraft  as 18th century King Frederick the Great insisted. Obama established his credentials as dissimulator no later than the campaign for the Democratic nomination, when he flip-flopped on his promise that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” At that time, he also denied childhood practice of Islam, knowledge of the anti-Israel and anti-USA rants of his long-time pastor Jeremiah Wright, and a close relationship with former-Weatherman Bill Ayers. His penchant for such implausible denials goes part way toward explaining why current opinion polling shows USA public perceptions of Obama’s honesty are eroding. The three denials were also early predictors that he would be cold to Israel for religious, cultural and ideological reasons.

White House speech writer Ben Rhodes has said that the Cairo speech showed “frankly, just how he [Obama] personally views the conflict.” Rhodes also said that Obama mulled over every line, every word of the speech. This is significant, because with respect to Israel the Cairo speech was marked by dissimulation and implication that morally condemned the Jewish State, while largely validating the narrative of Arabs and Muslims.

Key dissimulation lay in the words: “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable.” These exact words were cynically chosen to elicit belief that Obama was expressing approval for current ties with Israel and promising future support. But, linguistically those words neither said that he approved of those “strong bonds” nor offered a promise for the future. They were merely a bare statement of fact, presumably resting on Israel’s popularity with the USA public and in Congress. This assessment was corroborated by a later passage, where he signalled change by saying: “America will align our policies with those who pursue peace.” And, who Obama will deem to be “those who pursue peace” must naturally be understood within the moral parameters of “just how he personally views the conflict.”

Dissimulation was also salient with regard to Jerusalem, in relation to which Obama implied that Israel has failed to accommodate the needs of Muslims and Christians. Moreover, the Cairo speech specifically spoke about working for the day when Jerusalem would be “a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra.” Here, Obama cynically calculated that non-Muslims would perceive this passage as an anodyne ecumenical reference, while Muslims would understand the Isra story as relating to the Prophet Muhammad’s trip to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque. There, the hadith says that Muhammad was validated as God’s final messenger by his prophetic predecessors, including Moses and Jesus. Thus, for Muslims, the Isra story points to their claim to Jerusalem and their belief that Islam is superior to Judaism and Christianity.

For two centuries, the political and legal doctrine of the self-determination of Peoples has been an engine of world history. The Cairo speech significantly referred to the Palestinian People at least five times without offering a hint that Arabs living around the Jordan River did not generally self-identify as a distinct Palestinian People until the mid 20th century. By contrast, Obama referred only once to the very ancient Jewish People not as proud bearer of rights but in its Diaspora persona as victim. Otherwise, Obama used “Israelis” or words that implied an “Israeli People.” Obama’s terminology thus favoured the Palestinian People and implicitly challenged Israel’s legitimacy by ignoring its key political and legal claim to embody the self-determination of the Jewish People, whose subjective-objective national identity reaches back more than three millennia.

In Cairo, Obama had nothing to say about close to 1400 years of Arab and Muslim discrimination against Jews including periodic maltreatment of Jews around the Jordan River. By contrast, he repeatedly implied that Israel is responsible for Palestinian suffering from 1948 to the present. Thus, he referred to Palestinian refugees, failures in economic and social development, “daily humiliations… that come with occupation” and a so-called “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza. Evidently, how Obama “personally views the conflict” is deeply flawed. For example, would the Middle East have had any Jewish (850,000) or Arab (726,000) refugees had Arabs locally and generally followed the Jews in embracing the 1947 UN General Assembly resolution calling for creation of two new States, the one Jewish and the other Arab?

Similarly, the Cairo speech falsely implied that Israel has been the obstacle to a two-States solution. Thus, Obama said nothing about Prime Minister Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. And, he was silent about Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas’s failure to accept far-reaching two-States offers by Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert, in 2000 and 2008 respectively. This goes to the crux of the long-standing dispute. Since the 1937 Peel Report, first Zionists and then Israel governments have repeatedly worked for partition. By contrast, Arabs locally and generally have largely rejected the principle of a Jewish State, i.e. the idea of having there an independent country to embody the self-determination of the Jewish People.

In Cairo, Obama deliberately chose to ground rights in mere suffering. This was curious, because as a lawyer Obama had to know volenti non fit injuria  the Common Law principle that the plaintiff cannot recover damages to the extent that he himself has caused the harm. Moreover, plaintiffs are required to take timely steps to mitigate their losses, no matter how caused. But, the Cairo speech never asked to what extent Palestinian suffering might be the result of their own bad choices, including their share of responsibility for starting the 1948 war, which was a self-proclaimed Arab attempt to exterminate Jews living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

The Cairo speech repeatedly drew from the familiar arguments of Israel’s bitter enemies. First, Obama implied that Palestinian suffering can be equated with the Holocaust, a grotesque and wildly inaccurate comparison that is close kin to the calumny that Israel behaves like Nazi Germany. Second, Obama misrepresented the European murder of six million Jews as the ideological basis for Israel’s creation. As a lawyer, Obama had to know that Israel validates itself, not by the Holocaust, but by virtue of the political and legal doctrines of aboriginal rights (normally minority rights) and the self-determination of Peoples. The Jewish People has aboriginal rights in the same way as do the First Nations in Canada. And, the Jewish People invokes its self-determination right exactly as does the Arab People, whose self-determination is already expressed in the 21 countries that explicitly self-identify as Arab.

The Cairo speech pandered to Arab and Muslim prejudice by ignoring the presence since before Biblical times of large numbers of Jews in the Middle East, including some who in each and every century lived on their ancestral lands around the Jordan River. There, of all extant Peoples, the Jewish People has the strongest claim to be aboriginal. For this reason, two decades before the Holocaust, the aboriginal rights of the Jewish People were explicitly embedded in international law by the settlement after the First World War. Within a larger Middle Eastern and global framework, justice was done  because simultaneously there was the creation or recognition of several new Arab States that were freed from Turkish rule and placed on the road to eventual independence, as was the “national home for the Jewish People.”

By ignoring the Jewish People’s aboriginal and self-determination rights, the Cairo speech was notably devoid of a compelling moral or legal rationale for Israel’s creation. In Cairo, Obama called for an end to Palestinian violence which was dignified as “resistance.” But, apart from an appeal to end reciprocal suffering, he offered Arabs and Muslims no convincing moral or legal reason for stopping what they largely consider to be their just war against the Jews. To the contrary, Obama probably diminished prospects for peace by substantially validating the Arab and Muslim narrative. Apart from alienating most Israelis, the Cairo speech failed to provide an ideological foundation for a peaceful process to respectfully reconcile the prior rights of the Jewish People with the subsequent rights of the newly-emerged Palestinian People. The latter evidently now has claims to self-determination and territory. But, such claims cannot cancel the prior rights of the Jewish People, which notably include the right of Jews living there not to be killed by their Arab neighbours.

The Cairo speech slandered Israel by implying a false comparison between the suffering of Palestinians and that of Black people in the USA. There was also Obama’s gratuitous reference to “segregation” which slyly points to the canard that Israel is an apartheid State. This chimed with an inappropriate nod to White South Africa and other instances where indigenous Peoples offered “resistance” to colonial rule. Though repeated lip service was paid to Israel’s right to exist, the Cairo speech actually painted a moral picture that argued the contrary.

Saying “threatening Israel with destruction is deeply wrong” was probably calculated to resonate with USA Jews who are grateful for Israel’s survival. By contrast, most Israelis have the commonsense to understand that their country deserves much more than mere survival. They know that Israel urgently needs the rights normally enjoyed by other countries, and that Israel must be judged according to the standards regularly applied to other States in the same or similar circumstances. Obama’s existential focus was too starkly minimalist to accommodate Israel within the world of States, where each country is driven to advance its economic and political interests. Given the USA’s touted “strong bonds” with Israel, Obama ought to have said less about a “right to exist” and more about USA help in advancing any number of Israeli interests. The bad news here is that Obama perhaps intends to sell Israel short. This recalls national security adviser James Jones’s earlier quip that the new USA administration was not about to “throw Israel under a bus.”

The structure of the Cairo speech implausibly suggested that Iran’s race to develop nuclear weapons is today less “a major source of tension” than “the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab World.” In discussing this Iranian nuclear threat, Obama seemed to signal that he might be willing to break with a decades-old understanding that the USA would publically refrain from addressing whether or not Israel has nuclear weapons. The implication here was that Obama would perhaps follow Chamberlain’s playbook by making Israel’s denuclearization part of a broader deal, embracing Iran and other States in the region.

Was a major shift in USA foreign policy heralded by the speech’s apparent challenge to Israel’s ideological foundations and security interests? Obama placed a special focus on Palestinian suffering that disturbingly recalls Chamberlain’s exaggerated concern for Czechoslovakia’s three million Sudeten Germans. Chamberlain’s myopia rapidly led to the destruction of interwar Czechoslovakia, then the only democracy in Eastern Europe. With Europeans appearing as themselves and the Palestinians as the Sudeten Germans, does President Obama cast himself as Chamberlain? The British Prime Minister earned obloquy by being too eager for a general settlement at the expense of “people of whom we know nothing.” While irresponsibly failing to face the question of Hitler’s ultimate aims, Chamberlain recklessly sought peace by catering to German demands, including at the 1938 Munich Conference. Is Obama similarly searching for a general settlement that betrays Israel’s vital interests to the advantage of 21st century Hitlers as portrayed by Iran’s leaders with the help of proxies, including Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas?

A careful reading of the Cairo Speech suggests that Obama may believe that a weaker Israel now suits the interests of the USA. If so, he should honestly tell the American people why, instead of offering a fabric of dissimulation and implication. And, friends of the Jewish State should see Obama’s moral condemnation of Israel as a flashing red light that warns of the possibility of betrayal; just as Czechoslovakia was pressured to accept an unsafe peace that was prelude to disaster.

Allen Z. Hertz was formerly senior advisor in the Privy Council Office serving Canada’s Prime Minister and the federal cabinet. Earlier he worked in Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and taught history and law at universities in New York, Montreal, Toronto, and Hong Kong. He has a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and international law degrees from Cambridge University and the University of Toronto.

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