Managing Middle East Pain


Robin McKenzie is a New Zealand physical therapist who developed a widely respected program for treating back issues. In discussing one of the benchmarks of success for his method, he notes that “centralization (of pain) is the primary indicator of good progress.”

Little did McKenzie know that he was also offering exceptionally sound advice about how to work through the dreadful problems of the Middle East. President Barack Obama has apparently reached a similar conclusion in approaching these issues — by isolating those toward one end of the spectrum or the other, and playing to the most moderate factions, Obama hopes to build support for a process that creates manageable, centralized pain.

Examine the key elements of Obama’s speech and his articulated strategy. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand his scheme to gather momentum in the middle:

* Kadima party MK Ze’ev Boim was quoted in the Jerusalem Post last Thursday as saying, “Obama’s speech is further proof that Netanyahu did not properly gauge the policies of the United States,” he said. “The policies of the President on the Palestinian issue are identical to those of Kadima, and it is unfortunate that Netanyahu is unable to accept the idea of two states for two peoples for narrow political reasons.” Obama knows that having support (or at least non-opposition) from large sections of moderates will offset and minimize the hue and cry from both the Israeli right and left.

* By offering to negotiate with the government in Iran, and to acknowledge that nation’s energy needs, Obama is, contrary to the views of some, not “sucking up” to Tehran. He is acknowledging the existence of vast, Westernized professional and working classes that aim to move Iran away from saber-rattling and toward economic expansion.

* With criticism of further Israeli settlement expansion, acknowledgment of terrible conditions in the territories and affirmative recognition of the potential creation of “Palestine” (which rhetorically carries far more weight than the more common reference to the Palestinian people or Authority), Obama played to the man and woman on the street, both in Gaza and the West Bank, and in Arab nations throughout the Middle East.

No wonder Al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah are scared — Obama is speaking the language of the common man in the Arab world, offering a willingness to disagree with Israel on matters of import, and offering a glimmer of hope of a world without perpetual violence. This stuff doesn’t sit well with those who offer anarchy and destruction as the only viable model.

No wonder those who eschew the two-state solution or the slowdown of Israeli settlement activity are scared — they’ve seen the negotiation endgame and it doesn’t look good from their perspective. Peace with compromise on these matters is to some a peace without meaning. But accusing Obama of “meddling” in Israeli internal matters is a disingenuous response — does anyone think for a moment that if the Israeli government were supporting a two-state solution and the United States were opposing it, that these voices would be chastising the U.S.? Somehow we think not.

No wonder the mullahs and President Ahmedinejad of Iran are scared — the sleight of hand that purports to point blame at the Wicked West and Israel while the nation’s economy has descended into the throes of despair doesn’t play well on Obama’s stage. By admitting culpability on our nation’s part and by extending an open hand, Obama is free to throw stones at all parties for intransigence.

Some have taken Obama’s outreach as either a turn away from solidarity with Israel or as appeasement to the Muslim and Arab worlds. But only those who don’t accept Obama’s words at face value can question the President’s commitment to Israel, which he described as “unbreakable” in his Cairo speech. And his follow up visit to Buchenwald with Elie Wiesel was an emphatic rebuke of Holocaust deniers in the Arab world and beyond.

Like Robin McKenzie, President Obama is unfraid of pain. Rather, he sees the migration of pain to the middle as a constructive, essential step in effecting a lasting solution. Will his strategy work? Who knows. But for now, it feels to some extent like the back patient has emerged from a protracted bed-ridden state and is cautiously recovering toward an erect diplomatic posture.