Why the president fails to grasp the conflict's true nature.
Ignored in the hoopla over the latest Israeli and Palestinian political developments is a little-noted anniversary: It has been three years since President Bush’s May 15, 2008 address to Israel’s Knesset. Bush spoke in remarkably religious and biblical terms, describing Israel’s creation as not just a new country, but “the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David—a homeland for the chosen people: Eretz Yisrael.” Bush added, “Our friendship runs deeper than any treaty. It is grounded in the shared spirit of our people, the bonds of the Book, the ties of the soul.”
The contrast in the respective religious flavors of the Bush and Obama administrations helps illuminate their differing approaches to Mideast issues. Moreover, it may highlight a serious misassessment of regional political realities by President Obama in continuing to lean on Israel for peace-process concessions.
Bush’s speech reflected his openness about his deep religious faith. His White House was famous for its strongly Judeo-Christian approach to foreign policy, saturated with concepts of good and evil, natural law, and the God-given nature of human rights, liberty and democracy. Bush and his team understood what it meant for people to be religious, and to live by the commands of their faith.
Obama, however, is of a more secularized and progressive world. His team won’t speak of Israel in biblical terms or of God’s promise to the Jewish people, but only in post-Holocaust terms. His urbane, liberal, intellectual circles are embarrassed by God-talk. Such sophisticates might be God-conscious for a few hours of religious service on a weekend or holiday, but God is largely kept confined to houses of worship. God is banished from any enlightened intellectual or international political discussion.
Such secularism, however, may cloud geopolitical vision. The Mideast is flammably not secular, filled with people who live and breathe their incompatible respective understandings of God’s word. Projecting our Western, tolerant worldview onto others, we underestimate the degree to which religion can motivate shocking actions, beliefs and political orientations, especially among radicalized populations: incomprehensibly evil as it may be to us, suicide-bombing is an act of supreme religious devotion.
Does the Obama administration truly appreciate the significance of dealing with religious populations? Obama’s infamous campaign statement that “bitter” working-class voters “cling to guns or religion…as a way to explain their frustrations” suggests incomprehension and condescension toward the religious. His refusal to recognize the Islamist nature of domestic terror attacks such as the Fort Hood shootings or blindness to the Islamist elements in this “Arab Spring” shows similar tendencies.
Famed scholar of Islam, Professor Bernard Lewis, once noted that the West thinks in terms of nations subdivided by religions; the Islamic world thinks of itself as a religion subdivided into nations. Islam is the basis of both identity and loyalty, and has little tradition of separation between religion and state.
Accordingly, the parties with whom the Obama administration wants Israel to compromise are not strictly secular-nationalistic, and never have been. The various wars and claims against Israel have all had a religious element at their core. Terror attacks and massacres are not preceded by shouts of nationalistic slogans, but by cries of “Itbach al-Yehud” (“Slaughter the Jews”) and “Allahu-Akhbar” (“God is Great”). Palestinian organizations insist on a state, and that it be Judenrein. “Moderate” Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas cannot bring himself to accept Israel as a Jewish state. The Hamas charter views an Islamic state including all of Israel as an Islamic religious mandate, stating that "renouncing any part of Palestine means renouncing part of the religion; the nationalism of the Islamic Resistance Movement is part of its faith.” So too, for Iran and Hezbollah, destruction of Israel is a religious imperative and historical inevitability.
Yet, this Administration’s peace-process approach (Israeli territorial withdrawal, including from Jerusalem; downplaying incitement and terror; ignoring muscular Islamic movements on Israel’s borders; engaging Syria and Iran) seems oblivious to broad Islamic rejectionism of Israel’s existence. What makes Obama believe that religious doctrine will be abandoned in exchange for a few acres of land and fleeting political prestige?
Whatever the shortcomings of Bush’s Middle East policy, he understood the Islamist religious factor, as well as the Obama-esque impulse to ignore it. As Bush said to the Knesset, “There are good and decent people who cannot fathom the darkness in these men and try to explain away their words….Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them that they have been wrong all along….We have an obligation to call this what it is—the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.” Bush added, “No nation should ever be forced to negotiate with killers pledged to its destruction.”
This is not meant to endorse any particular solution. But refusing to address the religious element of regional antagonism towards Israel while forcing Israeli concessions is hardly a plan for lasting peace.
Abe Katsman is an American attorney and political commentator living in Jerusalem. He is Counsel to Republicans Abroad Israel.