President Obama has developed a reputation for speaking uncomfortable truths to audiences. As he journeys to Saudi Arabia, to jaw with the king to whom he bowed just a few weeks ago, and then to Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak honors human rights more in the breach than in the observance, the president's devotion to truth over crowd-pleasing will be tested in Arabic.
To what lengths is the president willing to court the Arab world? Or enjoy our company as dinner partners? Will he defend freedom and democracy as superior to vassalage and despotism? Will he tell the Arab world how offensive its conspiracy theories are about the Sept. 11 terror attacks, its teaching the falsehoods of the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion as truth and its celebration of religious intolerance by criminalizing genuine conversions? That it is its failures to recognize the inalienable individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and to prefer persuasion and the rule of law to violence since at least 1948 that has sabotaged the peace process and its own people's prosperity?
Or will it be easier to squint at the glaring dysfunctions of the Arab world - shortchanging education, sneering at tolerance, glorifying terrorism and violence - and to sell Israel and our honor to them, down the river?
Preliminary signals are unpromising.
In the past week, the Obama administration has shown a propensity to appease Arab ultimatums. It has flamboyantly denounced Israel's settlement activity on the West Bank. It has jettisoned a menu of understandings on the settlements, including allowances for natural growth, reached between successive Israeli and American administrations.
The preoccupation with settlements has deflected attention away from any real Arab or Palestinian responsibility for the ongoing conflict with the Jewish state. The censure is obtusely placed on the shoulders of the only true democracy in the history of the Middle East and the only party that has demonstrated a readiness to compromise for peace, in contrast to Hamas, which remains wedded to the destruction of Israel.
Settlement activity is a marginal issue. Hamas, a notorious terrorist organization, controls Gaza. Iran daily inches closer to a nuclear capability and hikes its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. The Palestinian Authority is complicit with, and complacent about, the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank, corruption and vigilante justice. With these intransigent and belligerent negotiating parties, no peace agreement is at hand.
Pandering to the Arab world by echoing its fixations with settlements makes peace more difficult. Israel is a tiny state - it needs confidence that the United States will stay true to its commitments to take the risks necessary to strike a peace deal. As Congress recently urged, problems with Israel should be addressed privately to avoid encouraging its Arab neighbors to believe that inflexibility will be rewarded.
As a result of its peace agreement with Egypt, Israel dismantled settlements, yielded huge swaths of strategically important territory and returned oil fields and air bases. For peace with Jordan, Israel relinquished land in the Arava Valley. And with President Clinton's support in 2000, and again last year, Israeli leaders have offered the Palestinians sweeping offers of peace: about 97 percent of the West Bank, a swap for the remaining land, a capital in East Jerusalem and authorization for tens of thousands of Palestinians to settle in Israel. Palestinian leaders balked, confirming Abba Eban's observations that Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Israeli unilateral concessions eroded Israel's security and brought more terrorism, which explains the West Bank's security fence. Think about Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon, which left behind fertile ground for Iranian-backed Hezbollah to plant its roots, subvert Lebanese sovereignty, export the Islamic Revolution to the only other previously non-majority Muslim state in the region and wage war against the Jewish state.
Or take a look at Gaza, where Israel's unilateral withdrawal was supposed to give energy to a floundering peace process. Instead, another Iranian-backed terrorist group, Hamas, took over in a violent coup, Islamicized the coastal strip, murdered political opponents, kidnapped an Israeli soldier and lobbed thousands of rockets at Israeli homes and schools.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told The Washington Post last week that he was content to sit on his hands waiting for the United States to deliver Israel to the altar of endless concessions, adding that he will resist even asking Arab states to take baby steps toward normalizing relations with Israel, as Mr. Obama would applaud.
The impediment to peace in the Middle East is the same today as it was in 1948, long before settlements became an issue. For six decades, the Arab world has refused to accept Israel's existence; and, have squandered resources that should have been employed constructively to build democracy and flourishing economies at home on unremitting attempts to destroy a neighboring state.
Will the Obama administration be as publicly demanding of recalcitrant Arab states as it has been in chastising Israel? Will he ask for more than lip service to peace? What will the president have to say about the generations of children, indoctrinated in radical Saudi-funded madrassas that have been taught that Israel is the enemy, that America is evil and that educated women are threatening?
There is a cold war heating up in the Middle East and Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states on one side, and Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and, provisionally, Syria, on the other. This is a unique time for the Middle East.
The threat facing the moderate regimes and those on the bubble is stark. The danger is not Israel or false tensions concocted in Arab capitals over Palestine, which Arabs have stiff-armed for more than 60 years. No, the threat to all comes from Iran, and if we are lucky, and the president does what's right, he will tell them that, too.
The president's address in Cairo puts America's credibility at stake. Using Israel as coin to buy Arab respect will not pay off. Speaking the truth will. America's friendship and respect are indeed possible, if Muslim leaders offer us, and their own people, the same. Now, that is the truth.
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