Taking Back the Night

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published January 28, 2009, issue of February 06, 2009.
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It is still much too early to start singing dayenu, that wonderful song that celebrates each element of the Exodus and that says, bluntly, that each alone would have been sufficient. But the first building blocks of such a song celebrating the movement toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians have now been laid down.

Just last June, in Jerusalem, several visiting Americans squabbled with veteran Israeli diplomat and peace activist Yossi Beilin. Beilin insisted that on our return to the United States, we should meet with top people in the McCain and Obama campaigns (and, if possible, with the principals themselves) and urge them to engage with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the first 100 days of the new American administration. Some of us thought the idea absurd: Surely the next president’s advisers would recommend that he postpone such engagement until he’d built up some credibility in the area of foreign affairs, surely he’d be totally preoccupied during his first months in office by the unfolding economic crisis, surely the Middle East would prove a thankless place, a continuing frustration.

Though all of us who were present were strong supporters of Obama, we seriously underestimated his vigor, his intelligence, his seriousness of purpose. So now, not 100 days but on his sixth full day in office, Obama has already provided us with three powerful markers. On his very first full day as president, before leaving for a special prayer service at the National Cathedral, the president made four overseas phone calls — to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, to King Abdullah of Jordan, to Prime Minister Olmert of Israel and, most notably, to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. A day later, rejecting a number of American diplomats who have been involved in Israeli-Palestinian affairs for many years, all with extensive contacts — and histories — in the region, he made a far more imaginative choice for special envoy to lead the American effort to encourage peace: George Mitchell, an acknowledged heavyweight and principal architect of Northern Ireland’s reconciliation. And, perhaps most stunning of all, just four days later he sat for an extended interview with a representative of satellite television station Al Arabiya — stunning not only by virtue of the fact that this was his first media interview since taking office but also by virtue of its thoughtful and measured content.

Might this significant down payment on a vigorous policy engagement have happened without the Gaza war? I am increasingly inclined to think it would have, the product of a mix of Obama’s ambition and of the Obama Inauguphoria now sweeping the country. Especially because there will be no quick fix to the economy, Obama knows that he will likely never have as much space to innovate, maneuver, lead as he does just now.

The president was pitch-perfect during the Al Arabiya interview, the implicit purpose of which was to create an opening to Arab and Muslim moderates. I could now simply quote some of its more impressive passages — there are many — but the fact is that the transcript is online, readily accessible and well worth reading in its entirety.

Instead, I want to call attention to the meaning of this flurry of activity. It is no secret that the mood among both Israelis and Palestinians is glum. People are tired, fatigued by the conflict, yet see no way forward. Naysayers are everywhere at center stage.

The night before the interview, I went to see the Israeli movie “Waltz With Bashir.” It’s up for an Academy Award as best foreign film, and rightly so. It is brilliantly innovative and utterly heartbreaking, an inventive documentary on Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982. As an eloquent antiwar movie, it deserves a broad audience. As a specific depiction of a very low point in the Israeli past — a focus of the film is the massacre at Sabra and Shatila — it is a brutal reinforcement of the prevailing hopelessness. In the 26-and-a-half years since 1982, there have been the two intifadas, Israel’s war in Lebanon two summers ago and now Gaza. I left the movie feeling that death and devastation had become destiny. Far more important, that is how very many Israelis and Palestinians feel. And their hopelessness paralyzes, gives the fanatics freedom to roam and to ruin.

Comes the gifted new president of the United States and says, “No.”

He may fail; many others have, and it is late in the day. The effort requires much more than charm. It doesn’t begin to be enough that many of us still get a pleasant buzz every time we hear a newscaster refer to “President Obama.” It means nothing that my own mood lightens every time I glance at the video of the Bush helicopter receding, receding. This is for keeps. And it comes in the nick of time, just as prospects for a two-state solution have been growing more and more dim. That is why this flurry of activity seems almost a reprieve, as if already the night has been held back.

It is plainly far too soon to celebrate; night has not been canceled. And we will doubtless now hear cries of alarm from those in the American Jewish community who prefer a president who loves Israel well but not wisely. They come to this new time fresh from eight years of a president whose way it was to indulge the Israelis, never to insist that they live up to their own stated commitment regarding withdrawal from at least some West Bank settlements. It is time for them, like their patron, to recede. It is time for them to give peace a real chance. It is — dare I say it? — time for hope, again.

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