There’s a big lesson for Barack Obama in the current Israeli-Hamas conflagration. Before I say what that is, please allow me to discourage anyone from thinking this is about right and wrong in that conflict; it isn’t. It is about cultural expectations and reality.
The lesson for the President-elect is not that the Mideast is an intractable problem, that the Palestinian-Israeli beef is particularly complicated, that domestic and international constituencies are increasingly hard to please on the issue, or that practically any policy you can come up with for the region will likely haunt you. All of those things are true.
But the real point Mr. Obama should take from the fighting in Gaza and missiles in Southern Israel is that high expectations, including your own, can eat you alive.
Israel is the point here, not Hamas, just because the Jewish state is the example that establishes the thesis.
The New York Times writes today that just about everyone around the world is outraged over the disproportionate violence Israelis are using in Gaza. Except Israelis, who are nearly united in their support for the action. That standing alone and apart thing is not new.
The Jewish State has long been considered by most Israelis, many Jews around the world and a host of others, to be a special case, particularly since its beginning in 1948-49. Its opponents and enemies also have special feelings for Israel, just not good ones. But in the diorama, now slightly misted over by history, here’s the feel good view:
Many of the founding parents of Israel were Holocaust survivors, victims of a genocidal campaign of historic dimensions. Or at the very least, people fleeing centuries of oppression elsewhere yearning for a better life and freedom of culture and religion. (Sound familiar? Can you say Pilgrim?) Noble beginnings and aspirations for sure, particularly if you saw the movie “Exodus” with Paul Newman, or marveled at the old world erudition and civilized culture of Israeli statesmen like Abba Eban.
Just to get going, these folks had to fight the British in the sands, Arab armies opposing their existence and initial American apathy in Washington, not to mention a couple millennia of bias.
Then there was the whole kibbutz thing, an idealized life of communal work and home. Debate was open and aggressive in society and government. The desert bloomed with the application of great scientific minds and hard spade work. Women stood right alongside men, an unusual circumstance in the area. Grandfatherly and shirt-sleeved David Ben Gurion was the first prime minister. Then there was the grandmotherly Golda Meir, who set a standard for women to lead countries, even in times of war (which she and her country won romantically – not so romantic in Arab countries) in 1967, the functioning pioneer of the shock and awe idea.
Reality was more complex, of course. I remember interviewing Golda Meir in the early 70s when she came to speak at a dinner. Standing by the podium, her basso voice reverberating off the walls and her Elmo Zumwalt eyebrows arching, she was a powerful presence. But going into the elevator to her hotel room, she looked to be a small, old, exhausted woman surrounded by towering security men. No question she was a woman of many faces and pulled some stunts in her time that wouldn’t have thrilled the rose-colored glasses set.
I’ve also interviewed Palestinian leaders, both here and there, and seen and heard the refugee, statelessness and aggression issues argued forcefully.
Since then, there have been U.N. pile-ons by the dozens, internal peace movements, settlement fury, walls, annexations, occupations, covert ops, suicide bombings, assassinations. surprise attacks, threats of pushing people into the sea, and a whole lot of death. Oh, and also a few treaties, productive negotiations, official recognition, and fairly broad agreement on a two-state solution.
But with the mythology of Israel came responsibility. Decades of debate have centered around a higher standard Israel is supposed to adhere to, given its roots, the stated purposes of its founders and its claim, as a haven, to the greater ground of moral purpose. Also, like women in the workplace, the State of Israel was expected to have to work harder for respect, just given its anti-Semitism second-class status, high stated goals and low world opinion. In this latest bloodshed, expectations have helped to bite Israel in the butt.
All that dreamy, whimsical notion of higher purpose has not survived the reality of the cold and calculation of real time though. Maybe there will be Mideast peace and friendship sometime soon. But with Iran in the picture and hardened positions all around, that just seems a long way off. Fellowship, kumbaya-style, has not really served the pragmatic goals of workable accommodation. Just ask Mr. Sadat or Mr. Rabin. If you could.
Barack Obama can see, in this historical panorama, the perils of expectations, which are way up there as he prepares to take office. He is considered by his many supporters to be a special case and that’s dangerous for him.
Already he’s acknowledged that the towering, high-minded rhetoric of his campaign won’t translate into the fact of his early presidency. “His message of changing the country has been replace by one of repairing the country,” says a CNN story, pretty accurately.
There were similar atmospherics and disconnect between talk and reality today in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee love-in hearing for Hillary Clinton. The shoo-in future Secretary of State is smart and shrewd and will give troubled and troubling world diplomats some things to think about.
But in all the baroque Senatorial compliments from her former colleagues and easy questions, Richard Lugar broached the issue of Bill Clinton’s fund-raising in other countries. Mr. Clinton, as part of the price of his wife’s new job, agreed to reveal the donors to his charitable activities. But Senator Lugar, who I remember as the staunchly principled head of the US observer team in the 1986 Philippine presidential election, said disclosure didn’t go far enough. He believes Bill Clinton should not accept foreign donations.
“The core of the problem,” Sen. Lugar said, “is that foreign governments and entities may perceive the Clinton Foundation as a means to gain favor with the secretary of state. The Clinton Foundation exists as a temptation for any foreign entity or government that believes it could curry favor through a donation.”
No kidding, Senator. That’s especially true for current Clinton Foundation donors who have a history of pay-to-play, like Saudi Arabia.
Even assuming Mrs. Clinton is way too principled to let donations to her husband get in the way of sound foreign policy, what about the perception of conflict?
Committee Chair John Kerry, who also championed the oppressed underdogs in that 1986 Manila drama, didn’t seem to care much about the issue. “Her presence overseas,” he said of Mrs. Clinton, “will send a strong signal that America is back.” Yeah, with its wallet out?
But Mr. Lugar is clearly prepared not to vote on his warning in any case and will join the other members in confirming Mrs. Clinton. So why make the cautionary speech?
Another instance where expectations of high standards crash on the reef of realpolitik.