There's one crisis in the Middle East that Barack Obama can see coming a long way off. In September, the Palestinians are likely to declare an independent state, and it's likely to be recognized by a vast majority of the international community, including close U.S. allies. So far the administration has not figured out how to respond, because they know that the Palestinian move will leave the president trapped.
If he does not restrain the Israelis he will be damned in the court of international opinion, weakening any claim the U.S. has to be a champion of people seeking freedom. If he does restrain the Israelis he'll be damned in the court of domestic opinion as "pro-Palestinian, an "enemy of Israel" -- a potentially fatal blow just as his reelection campaign is getting underway.
The obvious solution is for Obama to get the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate an agreement before the September deadline arrives. Since the chance of the two sides doing it on their own is somewhere below zero, there's growing talk about Obama going to Jerusalem and giving a speech that presents his own peace plan. He's probably got enough leverage with both sides to force it on them, like it or not. So he won't really care much what the Israeli public thinks.
His real concern will be his domestic problem. If he pressures Israel to accept his terms he'll still be labeled "anti-Israel" not only by some big Jewish campaign donors but, more importantly, by the entire Republican Party. Israel is a powerful symbol among the white voters the Republicans must bring out to the polls if they want any chance of victory in '12. Most white Americans accept the myth of Israel's insecurity -- the claim that the Jewish state's very existence is threatened, so all its actions are in self-defense -- as justification for everything Israel does to the Palestinians, no matter how outrageous.
Obama's Jerusalem speech would be aimed primarily at the U.S. public. He would have to stand up in Jerusalem, say, "This is what Israel must do for peace," and at the same time defuse the charge at home that he's "undermining Israel's security." To do that he must change the terms of the debate in the U.S. about what "Israel's security" actually means.
Here's what he should say:
The peace plan I am offering poses no threat to the existence of Israel. Israel has proven over and over that none of its neighbors can defeat it in war. Certainly a Palestinian state -- brand new, physically divided, and struggling to heal its political divisions -- would pose no threat.
In recent years many Israelis have recognized that they are militarily secure. Now they worry that their nation might be destroyed by those who would 'delegitimize' it and make it a pariah in the international community. But the world is not questioning the legitimacy of Israel's existence. It is only denying the legitimacy of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and its economic strangulation of Gaza. Once the peace plan I offer is enacted, the threats of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel will fade as rapidly as the violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
When we talk about the threat to Israel's security, we are not talking about any threat to the state's existence, for that is already assured -- as long as Israel is willing to make peace as the international community desires. No, we are talking about threats to the physical security and safety of each individual Israeli. Tragically, as long as two peoples are ensnared in military conflict, innocent civilians on both sides will suffer.
I reaffirm America's commitment to the security of every citizen of Israel. But there is only one way to insure their security. That is to make peace. Otherwise even the United States, with its vast resources, will be powerless to protect them. Peace, the only way to bring security to the people of Israel, will also bring security to the people of Palestine.
The alternative is continued bloodshed and suffering on both sides. That is not an acceptable alternative to the United States. It should not be acceptable to anyone. For those who are committed to security, the only possible option is the peace I propose here today.
If Obama gave this speech in Jerusalem, he would open up sizeable media space at home for the many journalists, commentators, and talking heads who know the truth: Israel's existence is indeed secure from military attack. The only threat to Israel is the international isolation its own policies are provoking. Individual citizens of Israel will be safe only when their government starts seriously negotiating for peace.
Of course Obama wouldn't change the minds of American right-wingers. They'd denounce him as "naïve" and "anti-Israel." And that's why, if he does give a speech in Jerusalem, it won't be this one. He's not likely to take such a risk, especially at the outset of his re-election campaign.
However the move by the international community to recognize a Palestinian state does open up new room for the millions of Americans who have already seen through the myth of Israel's insecurity, those who know that it's up to the Israeli government to decide whether its people will be secure. So we don't have to wait for Obama to give that speech. We can give it every day, in every way, to anyone who will listen.
When most Americans no longer take Israeli claims of "existential threat" and "self-defense" seriously, Obama will be politically free to say publicly what he recently told U.S. Jewish leaders -- that "Israel is the stronger party here, militarily, culturally and politically. And Israel needs to create the context for [peace] to happen." Then the Palestinian people will have some real hope that their long years of suffering may soon come to an end.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.