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Obama Brings His Theology to the Middle East

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By Ira Chernus

Crossposted on Tikkun Daily

The real Barack Obama was clearly on display in his quick trip to Israel and Palestine. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, he always gives you something you want with one hand, while he takes away something equally important with the other hand.

When Obama spoke in Jerusalem, I cheered as loudly as the audience of liberal Jewish students who shared my views, which the president voiced so eloquently: The occupation is really bad for Israel; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must lead his nation to a just peace with an independent, viable Palestinian state.

I cheered most when I heard Obama say words that I never thought I’d hear an American president say in Israel: The occupation is not merely harmful to Israel’s national interests, it’s downright immoral: “It is not fair that a Palestinian child … lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. … It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands … or to displace Palestinian families from their home.” Bravo!

But Obama is no starry-eyed idealist. He crafts such idealistic words for practical political purposes. In this case he was pushing Israeli liberals and centrists further toward the peace camp, widening the gap between them and the Netanyahu-led right wing. Down the road, he can use the political tensions he stirred up to move Israel toward the kind of peace agreement he wants.

The pundits who declared him finished with the peace process were obviously wrong. (Even Thomas Friedman can make mistakes.) The president gave me something I want very much: A promise of more American pressure on Israel to make a just peace, for moral as well as practical reasons.

Predictably, though, at the same time Obama took away something equally important: his demand that Israel stop the main roadblock to peace, its expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Instead he fell back on the vague language we’ve heard from many presidents before: “We do not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate”; “Settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace.”

In Ramallah, standing alongside Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, Obama called the settlements merely an “irritant.” He urged Abbas not to use settlements as an “excuse” to refuse direct negotiations.

There’s some evidence that the PA had already received and perhaps accepted this message from Washington. Talking points prepared for Abbas suggested that he should agree to negotiations after getting only private assurances from Netanyahu on stopping settlement expansion. How much could those assurances be worth?

Back down on moral principle and tolerate an evil for the sake of a greater good: That seems to be Obama’s message now on the settlements. As usual, the president gives and at the same moment takes away. Does it make him just another crass politician, maneuvering to score the next victory, bereft of any principle?

Not necessarily. Biographies of Obama suggest that, from his college days, he has been a devotee of a consistent set of principles: the script laid out over 80 years ago by the famous theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in his classic book, Moral Man and Immoral Society — though Niebuhr supposedly said, years later, that he should have called it “Immoral Man and Very Immoral Society.”

Indeed. Because Niebuhr’s basic point is that we are all doomed to tolerate and even embrace evil. We are all selfish, always out to get more than the other guy, simply because we are human. It’s the old story of original sin — the myth of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, expelled forever from paradise — dressed up in 20th century clothing.

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