In the Arena

A Meeting in Damascus

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About an hour after Barack Obama’s excellent Cairo speech, I met with Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas, at his office here to talk about the speech and the Israel-Palestine conflict. We spoke for several hours and I will have a fuller accounting of our conversation in my print column next week. Meshal speaks some English, but he feels more comfortable using an interpreter. He listened to my questions in English, asking occasionally for translation of a word or phrase, and gave his answers in Arabic. He never raised his voice or used militant language, but he never yielded on his basic position either. 

“Undoubtedly Obama speaks a new language,” he told me. “His speech was cleverly designed… The essence of the speech was to improve the U.S. image and to placate the Muslims. We don’t mind either objective, but we are looking for more than just mere words. If the United States wishes to open a new page, we definitely would welcome this. We are keen to contribute to this. But we [believe that can not happen] merely with words. It must be with deeds, by changing the policy on the ground.”

Meshal went on: “A Palestinian listening to the speech would have a simple question: where are the true actual issues that touch our lives? A Palestinian listening didn’t hear anything about the Israeli war in Gaza or about Israel’s war crimes.” He mentioned the alleged use of depleted uranium and white phosphorous. “A beautiful discourse lacks credibility if it doesn’t address Gaza.”

Meshal refused to make concessions on any of the points Obama mentioned–renouncing the use of violence (although he did say that Hamas was willing to discuss a formal ceasefire), recognizing the state of Israel or the prior commitments made by the Palestinian Authority to a peace process.  I asked him about this portion of the speech:

It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

“Palestinian actions are reactions. What Palestinians do is to resist the occupation,” he said. “It is self-defense. Why did the Americans support the Mujaheddin against the Soviets in Afghanistan? Why did the British support the French agains the Nazis? Why did you have a revolution against the British? Self-defense.”

I made the obvious point about the difference between self-defense and targeting civilians. “But civilians die in wars,” one of Meshal’s aides pitched in. “You call it collateral damage.”

So no breakthrough. At least, not for the moment. But no doors closed, either–and the body language, at least toward one Jewish-American journalist, was peaceful and indicated an openness to serious negotiations. I’ll have much more to say about our conversation and the possible ways to deal with the reality of Hamas, which is not going away, in my next print column.

As for Obama’s speech, I thought it was long but extraordinary. There was something in it to displease each of the governments in the region. The Israelis will be displeased by the renewed call for an end to settlement expansion on the West Bank. The Iranians will be displeased by the emphasis placed on their nuclear program, rather than a call for broader discussions (although Iranians will be pleased by Obama’s acknowledgment of the U.S. role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government 50 years ago). The Egyptians won’t like the emphasis on democracy and the Saudis won’t like the advocacy of women’s rights. 

But there was much to please the average people of the region–the respect the President showed Islamic culture, the quotations from the Quran, which received great rounds of applause from his Egyptian audience, the care with which Obama chose his words. And I would disagree with Khaled Meshal: the striking thing wasn’t the beauty of Obama’s language, but its candor. A simple statement about governments “that steal from the people” is not only unusual for an American President, but also a sign that this President understands the daily lives of people in some of the most corrupt, autocratic regimes on earth. His simple, direct and unflinching account of the Holocaust–in a region where Holocaust-denial has been a constant staple of the mass media–may have a subtle, long-term impact on attitudes and tolerance in the region. There were many such noble moments in the speech. 

But what now? Khaled Meshal wants to know what sort of influence the U.S. will bring to bear against Israeli settlement-building. It’s a good question. There are many others. The stage has now been set for negotiations throughout the region. It is time for the real give-and-take to begin, for the real deals to be made…or not. This is the arena where Obama is least likely to succeed, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he will judge the success of his own presidency–and his legacy–on how well he does here.