Rising to the Occasion

When President Barack Obama met the recently elected Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, he said to the press that he believed that Mr. Netanyahu was “going to rise to the occasion.

Let’s hope so.

The Israeli prime minister was in Washington for talks about his country’s future relationship with Palestine and with the other Middle Eastern countries. President Obama has sorting out the Middle East as one of his many priorities in this optimistic and impressive new American administration.

Optimistic and impressive were not the words to describe Mr. Netanyahu’s previous spell as prime minister between 1996 and 1999 when he was famous for his fiery right-wing aggression and his catch phrase of “No.”

This was all about saying No to any question of stopping Israeli settlement on Palestinian land, No to any negotiations with the Palestinians and No to something else which I can’t remember. Well, you get the drift.

Of course, he couldn’t get away with not negotiating even if he wanted to and his previous administration fell into ruins when he started to talk to the Palestinian leader, Yasa Arafat.
The far right parties in his coalition government walked out on him and the left wing parties wanted him to go as soon as possible. He went and, to many people’s relief, retired from politics.

Now he is back, all coalitioned up, like Israel has to be, with too much power given to those nasty minority parties who can really decide which way a government goes. He is certainly older than he was in 1999 but let’s hope that he is wiser.

He reduced President Clinton to expletives that might have made even President Nixon blush but there are signs that he might have recognised that the Americans have a new boy in town who will be less susceptible to his brutish negotiating style.

Mr. Obama has said, pretty uncompromisingly, that Israel must accept the “two-state solution” where Israel and Palestine live together “side by side in peace and security.”

Binyamin Netanyahu may well “rise to the occasion” when he finds out that he has no option but to follow the charismatic American’s dream of a peaceful Middle East with Israel recognised by its neighbours and with Iran as a political and non-nuclear friend. The World would be dramatically transformed if this unlikely scenario ever came to pass.

Well if anyone can do it, Barack Obama can.

I hope that one day he will be able to persuade the Burmese military dictatorship to rise to the occasion too; especially as it puts its opposition leader, the much persecuted Aung San Suu Kyi on trial again. Her defence of democracy in this forbidding nation has resulted in her spending 16 of the last 20 years in detention.

Another World leader who needs to rise to the occasion is President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka who is celebrating the apparent end of the 26 year civil war between his Sinhalese majority and the minority Tamils.

The brutal insurgent leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran is reported dead – killed trying to escape the government’s slaughter of the remnants of his army. Reporters and the Red Cross have been kept away, but it appears that no mercy was handed out to these similarly unmerciful revolutionaries.

There was little mercy shown to the civilians caught in the cross fire either and the refugee camps, now filled to over-flowing with approximately 220,000 Tamil civilians, are in that half way house between disaster zone and concentration camp.

So whilst the Sinhalese celebrate on the streets, the Tamils suffer. That old, old story where the winners in civil wars mistakenly believe that long term peaceful solutions can ever come out of blood-shed.

So more people will die, no doubt; adding to the 70,000 deaths so far in this brutal conflict. But where is the solution? Not amongst those 220,000 Tamils whose lives have been devastated. Surely we will see yet another example of one uncompromising victory leading to yet another war.

This is where President Rajapaksa needs to “rise to the occasion.”

Is it just naivety or is it actually possible that the American President can make a difference with his phenomenal and, some say, impossible agenda of reform? Can we really see the beginnings of change in the conflict-torn World which has developed since those heady days when the Berlin Wall toppled and we all thought that peace really might be given a chance?

An idealistic and energetic American President is certainly a help but there are still far too many regimes spread all over the globe where the word “No” still answers any appeals for compromise.

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