We Are Going to Keep Telling the Truth ‘Til It Stops Working

I continue to be haunted, almost fixated on President Obama’s simple words about the joke around the White House.  It is in my opinion, a stunning formula for presidentially-led social change. After four decades of watching American presidents, supposedly the most powerful agents of change in the Arab/Israeli conflict, fail to make any change. Now Obama is coming along at a good time for change, in that so much of the world knows that Israel must change, including most American Jews, finally, finally. But he could be still failing miserably at this. No, it really is his genius. The fact is the most passionate president on peace and justice for Palestinians is Jimmy Carter, but he is not believed at all by most Jews or trusted. Why? Because he has a nasty habit of saying in public things that are so overly optimistic about seasoned enemies and militant groups with blood on their hands  that he loses frightened Jews on the question of truth and trust. (Every administration and every regime in the Middle East loses the trust of the Palestinian people, but that is another subject. Here I am dealing with American power systems and shifting them.) In other words, when people are frightened about their future, they will not change anything unless they have to. But presidents have enormous psychological power to make people change, but only if they can trust or feel that the president is telling them absolute and simple truths. Bush and Cheney did that, but they told lies, about weapons of mass destruction, about enemies, about torture. So they were believed but then not believed and shunned by many. Mr. Carter says too many nice things about Hamas and Hezbollah. He should just say simple truths. And that is what President Obama has hit upon on as he navigates the rocky shores of Middle East peace that have sunk a thousand political ships. There are many unscrupulous ultra-nationalists that will try everything in the coming months to make Obama and Mitchell crash on those shores, but they will fail. Here are the President’s simple and stunning words, delivered without anger or disquiet but with confidence. All the most brilliant shifts in history appear to be simple and obvious once they are absorbed, but they are not simple or obvious. We may be witnessing an entirely new model of presidential leadership.

“We have a joke around the White House,” the president said. “We’re just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working — and nowhere is truth-telling more important than the Middle East.”

A key part of his message, he said, will be: “Stop saying one thing behind closed doors and saying something else publicly.” He then explained: “There are a lot of Arab countries more concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon than the ‘threat’ from Israel, but won’t admit it.” There are a lot of Israelis, “who recognize that their current path is unsustainable, and they need to make some tough choices on settlements to achieve a two-state solution — that is in their long-term interest — but not enough folks are willing to recognize that publicly.”

There are a lot of Palestinians who “recognize that the constant incitement and negative rhetoric with respect to Israel” has not delivered a single “benefit to their people and had they taken a more constructive approach and sought the moral high ground” they would be much better off today — but they won’t say it aloud.

“There are a lot of Arab states that have not been particularly helpful to the Palestinian cause beyond a bunch of demagoguery,” and when it comes to “ponying up” money to actually help the Palestinian people, they are “not forthcoming.”

When it comes to dealing with the Middle East, the president noted, “there is a Kabuki dance going on constantly. That is what I would like to see broken down. I am going to be holding up a mirror and saying: ‘Here is the situation, and the U.S. is prepared to work with all of you to deal with these problems. But we can’t impose a solution. You are all going to have to make some tough decisions.’ Leaders have to lead, and, hopefully, they will get supported by their people.”

© Marc Gopin