Monday, October 12, 2009

Barack Obama's Nobel Prize -- An Israeli Perspective

Eyes on the prize


Barack Obama went to bed Thursday night under attack for "flip-flopping" on Afghanistan-Pakistan, his centerpiece health care reform plan ever further from congressional approval, and having failed to deliver the 2016 Olympic Games to Chicago. As he drifted off, news reached Washington of yet another spate of deadly car-bombings in Iraq.

On Friday, he awoke to a bolt from the blue: the news that he had won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, beating out 204 other nominees, whose identities remain secret.

With fitting modesty, the president said he did not view the prize "as recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership."

The committee said it selected Obama "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy" and for his "vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons." We imagine the committee was particularly struck by the president's April 5 Prague speech on nuclear disarmament.

Whatever the impetus, this award gives Obama added legitimacy in leading an intensified worldwide campaign to block Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Alfred Nobel intended his awards go to those who "have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind," specifying that the peace prize was to go to the person who did the best work to promote peace. It was never intended exclusively as a payback for achieving peace.

REACTION to the Nobel committee's decision ranged from bemusement to bewilderment. Paradoxically, Obama-haters were overjoyed. Rush Limbaugh: "We could not have made the world laugh at our president, but the Nobel Peace Prize Committee and their award pulled it off. We owe 'em a debt of gratitude." Here, a page one tabloid headline read: "A Norwegian joke."

This year's committee was chaired by Thorbjorn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister who served with George Mitchell on the 2001 Mitchell Committee investigating the causes of the second intifada. That panel is remembered unfavorably in Israel for "evenhandedly" assigning responsibility for the violence.

While the prize has often been presented in appreciation for definitive achievements - to George Marshall, for instance for the post-WWII reconstruction of Europe - it has not infrequently been awarded by a quixotic committee to persons whose accomplishments either would not have a long shelf-life, or were nonexistent.

Woodrow Wilson received the award in 1919 for founding the League of Nations - which collapsed with the outbreak of WWII. Frank Billings Kellogg, an American secretary of state, received the award in 1929 for the Briand-Kellogg Pact, which outlawed war. Henry Kissinger was granted the prize in 1973 for peacemaking in Vietnam. Two years later, the South fell to the communists. Kissinger's Vietnamese interlocutor, Le Duc Tho, was the only laureate to decline the prize, citing continuing violence in his country.

Yasser Arafat got the award in 1994, yet died an unrepentant terrorist. And, in 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency's Mohamed ElBaradei was the winner, though he continues to downplay the danger posed by Iran's quest for the bomb.

In acknowledging the award, Obama made clear he's no pacifist. Without mentioning Islamist imperialism by name, he declared: "I am the commander-in-chief of a country" confronting "a ruthless adversary that directly threatens the American people and our allies."

WE WERE struck - and not ungrateful - that Obama made it a point Friday to single out his desire to help Israelis and Palestinians achieve peace. Though frankly, with his administration placing so much emphasis on the red-herring settlement freeze issue; with supposedly moderate Palestinian leaders inciting their people with false claims that the Netanyahu government is sending "settlers to pray at the Aksa Mosque;" and with the biased Goldstone Report gaining momentum in international forums - Israelis hardly see peace around the corner. Obama's value-neutral peacemaking approach has unintentionally raised Arab expectations that he will deliver a prostrate Israel.

His presidency is not yet a year old. There is time for Obama to emphasize that accepting Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state is an absolute prerequisite for resolving this conflict.

There are those who would begrudge him the peace prize. We hope, rather, that the president finds the wisdom to pursue the path that can best lead to a genuine, secure and lasting peace.

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