Why Progressives Should Heed Obama’s Call on Israel/Palestine

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When former president Barack Obama speaks on an issue as contentious as Israel/Palestine, he is bound to make the headlines. So it was following his remarks last week, first in an Obama Foundation Democracy Forum speech, then in a more candid sit-down interview with a podcast. Along broadly predictable lines, he denounced “decades of failure to achieve a durable peace for both Israelis and Palestinians,” he called for an “admission of complexity” in the conflict, he criticized “TikTok activism” as ineffectual and he reminded us that we are all “complicit” in the conflict, himself included.

The reactions were also predictable. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnel attacked him as equating Israel with Hamas and Newsmax headlined attacks on “Obama’s neutrality on Israel.” On the other side, some “TikTok activists” naturally took offense. One shouted at Obama that Hamas was a “resistance group” not a terrorist group and that she “didn’t want to talk about Hamas” at all, rather proving Obama’s point.

Even the beyond the fringes of TikTok, one can expect most progressives to shrug at Obama’s comments as useless milquetoast oratory, all the more rageful as they come in the midst of a war that is killing thousands of Palestinians in Gaza. His call for “complexity” will especially anger those whose political imagination is, in principle, based on sharp delineations between good and evil. Obama will be rebuffed for the same reason that another well-known commentator was celebrated a few days before. Speaking to Democracy Now, Ta Nehisi-Coates won accolades not just for his rightful denouncement of Israel’s system of segregation in the West Bank but for his insistence that there was nothing complex about this conflict.

Former President Barack Obama participates in conversation with Andreas Dracopoulos as part of the SNF Nostos Conference 2023, in Athens, Greece, on June 22, 2023.
MENELAOS MYRILLAS/SOOC/AFP via Getty Images

Coates surely has a point. There are many aspects of life in Israel/Palestine that are indeed crystal clear from any reasonable ethical standpoint: Millions of Palestinians live in the West Bank as an occupied population under the military rule of a foreign state that enjoys the backing of most major Western states, even as it no longer even pretends to want to end this state of affairs. No comparable situation exists anywhere in the world today.

But the complexity begins when we look at history and all aspects of the conflict– and when it comes to the daunting task of wanting to solve it. It is here that we would do well to heed Obama’s call.

The former president called for holding of “seemingly contradictory ideas”: that the Hamas attack was horrific and absolutely unjustifiable—and also that the occupation and the brutal war waged by Israel on Gaza was unbearable—and also that “history of the Jewish people” can’t be dismissed. One could add many more to the list.

More importantly, just as he criticized the TikTokification of Israel/Palestine advocacy, Obama reminded us of a simple but powerful truth: that it’s easy to “maintain moral innocence” but that this “won’t solve the problem.” This is a call that should be taken seriously, not just by those who failed any basic ethical tests by refusing to condemn the terror attacks of Hamas but by those who seem to think taking a clear moral stance is enough.

Unlike what many self-righteous activists seem to think, insisting on your moral superiority and constantly comparing yourself to hallowed movements of the past, from civil rights struggle in the U.S. to anti-Apartheid fight in South Africa, doesn’t bring change to the real world. Obama acknowledged this when he said, “If you genuinely want to change this, you got to figure out how to listen to someone on the other side and not dismiss it.”

These words will surely be derided by many as vacuous centrism, but they indeed contain a great truth: that conflicts come to an end by bridging chasms between people, not by ignoring them; that true moral and political courage is sometimes in seeking compromise—not intransigence at all costs.

Activists on the Left would do well to drop the moral certitude and Manicheanism and adopt the complexity called for by Obama. As we well remember long years of imprisonment and suffering by heroes like Nelson Mandela, we’d also do well to remember the hard work that they did to build bridges to “the other side,” to call on their own sides to make the necessary compromises so that peace could be possible.

When it comes to Israel/Palestine, this means recognition of perspectives and national rights of both communities living in that land: Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews.

Any perspective not rooted in such recognition will be something worse than unethical; it will be ineffectual. As Obama rightly said, no child will be saved by such an attitude.

Arash Azizi is a senior lecturer in history and political science at Clemson University and author of the upcoming “What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom” (2024).

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.