Another Nobel Message for Peace

JERUSALEM – In the week of Nobel Prize announcements, the most intriguing comment from the Middle East came not, as one might have expected, as a straight reaction to the shock of U.S. President Barack Obama being awarded this year’s Peace Prize.

It came from another Nobel winner – Israeli professor Ada Yonath, one of this year’s three recipients in chemistry.

The shock treatment prescribed for the conflict by the 70-year-old Weizmann Institute was even more of a shock to many of her fellow Israelis.

Asked by Israeli Army Radio Saturday whether she believed the award to Obama might spur him to advance peace in the region, Yonath chose to focus not on what the U.S. president can or cannot do, but on what Israel must do.

"A change in the status quo" is what is required, she declared, somewhat off beat: "All prisoners should be returned to Palestine regardless of a prisoner exchange deal [with Hamas]. I don’t understand why we incarcerate them in Israel in the first place.

"Many Palestinians," argued the Nobel Laureate, "have no hope for the future – despair gives them every reason to jump at the opportunity to better their prospects for a better afterlife [by becoming suicide bombers]."

Israelis are currently wholly absorbed not by prospective hopes for peacemaking but on whether the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, abducted three years ago by Palestinian militants, has a chance of being released in an imminent prisoner swap.

In contrast, other reactions about the choice of Obama for the peace prize were much more predictable.

Actually, there has been an unexpected show of unity among Israelis and Palestinians: even with the fresh wind blown from Oslo, skepticism dominates the mindset on both sides, widespread doubt whether the U.S. president will really push them down the peace road – and whether he has the clout to do so.

"You have already inspired so many people around the world, and I know that this award expresses the hope that your presidency will usher in a new era of peace and reconciliation," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"I look forward to working closely with you in the years ahead to advance peace and to give hope to the peoples of our region who deserve to live in peace, security, and dignity," added Netanyahu in his message to the White House.

The Israeli leader deliberately steered clear of whether that "hope" for peace would have any effect on his own policies.

Only hours before the announcement from Oslo and the warm congratulations from the prime minister, a banner headline in the liberal Tel Aviv daily Ha’aretz had referred to "fury" in the White House about "Israeli incitement against President Obama."

Administration officials were said to be "stunned" by the attempts to portray Obama to the U.S. public as an enemy of Israel because of his efforts to restart peace talks and freeze settlement construction, the report said.

Still, not all Israeli officials were prepared to line up with what they were expected to say about the peace laureate.

"It is very strange that Obama has won," commented a leading colleague of the prime minister, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. He voiced his "concern" that "now that he has won the award, it is very possible that he might force Israel into a peace deal."

On the Palestinian side, chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat played up the same expected line as Netanyahu: "We truly hope that he will be able to achieve peace in the Middle East," he said, choosing to focus on Obama’s role as peacemaker and steering clear of the commitment of the Palestinian Authority itself to move toward peace.

The difficulties that lie ahead for the president were exemplified by the weekend of abortive shuttle diplomacy conducted by his special envoy, former senator George Mitchell, who has been spearheading the administration’s efforts to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

There was no surprise in the skepticism of the Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and opposes a peace treaty with Israel. It played up the other expected line – of the peace spoilers in both camps – that the award is, at best, premature.

"Obama has a long way to go still and lots of work to do before he can deserve a reward," said senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri. "He only made promises and did not contribute any substance to world peace. And, he has not done anything to ensure justice for the sake of Arab and Muslim causes."

Uncompromising Israelis relish this kind of uncompromising Palestinian talk. "There is no chance of an early solution to the conflict. People just have to learn to live with it," Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had said only a day before the Oslo announcement.

Anyone who thinks Israelis and Palestinians can reach a deal "does not understand reality and is sowing illusions," Lieberman added.

Both applauders and critics of the award to Obama agree that it was a shocking decision.

That’s precisely what the Nobel Committee clearly intends – for the U.S. president to apply shock treatment to the Middle East.

Not necessarily the same kind of shock therapy suggested by the Israeli chemistry laureate, but one which stops the parties getting away with allowing all peace hopes to slide into a torpor.

Faced with myriad complications – Netanyahu’s obduracy on settlements and the virulent pressure by Palestinians on their president, Mahmoud Abbas, not to let Israel off the hook of charges that it perpetrated war crimes in Gaza – some analysts believe that Obama was on the verge of backing away from his commitment to peacemaking.

With peace hopes seeming about to flounder, the Nobel message to the White House couldn’t have been clearer: Yes, Mr. President, you can (make the parties make peace); No, you can’t (walk away from your peace commitment). And you must (inflict shock treatment on the parties).

(Inter Press Service)

Read more by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler