Oslo decided to change its ways and begin giving out deferred Nobel Prizes: Win now, pay tomorrow. There’s no other way to explain the bewildering, not to say bizarre, decision to grant the Nobel Prize for Peace to Barack Obama. Just like the reserved, esteemed Norwegians on the prize committee, we here, sweating and bleeding, were overjoyed with Barack Obama’s election as U.S. president – black, eloquent, enchanting, striking and promising. Many an eye welled with tears, from Jerusalem to Rafah, at his unforgettable inauguration address, and even as late as his Cairo speech we still clung to his beautiful words.
We here in the Middle East could not help but be impressed by the new spirit he ushered in. Negotiations with Iran, a handshake with Hugo Chavez, openness toward Cuba, tolerance toward North Korea and the cancellation of the missile shield in Eastern Europe. A new dawn broke after years of darkness under his predecessor, for whom the Apaches did the talking and who primitively divided the world into good guys and bad guys with his imbecilic invasion of Iraq and hopeless occupation of Afghanistan. America became less hated in the world.
If the Norwegians wanted to reward a promise, Obama has earned his Nobel. If they wanted to reward a change in the language America speaks to the world, he is the honorary laureate. If they wanted to reward his intentions, that would be fine, too. He might even deserve a prize for promoting peace, but only pending the fine print on his diploma, which will run: Anywhere but the Middle East. For the information of the esteemed committee members: Obama is not a complete package. So far he has betrayed his mission in the one region most threatening to world peace.
There has been no “change” and no “yes we can.” There has only been profoundly depressing treading in his predecessor’s footsteps. The same methods, the same foot-dragging, the same trudging through the same mire. Can you believe, when you see George Mitchell doing the rounds between President Shimon Peres’ empty words and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ vacuous statements, that Mitchell is the envoy of a Nobel Prize laureate? Obama might deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature, like Winston Churchill for his books, but as far as actions are concerned, at least in this part of the world, he deserves at most a conditional award, an IOU. At this point in his term, Obama resembles only one other Nobel Peace Prize winner – the Dalai Lama, zooming around the world and smiling beatifically.
Let these reservations not be seen as evidence of provincialism, because it’s as simple as this: A president of the world who has not done enough to achieve peace here is not worthy of the Oslo crown. What has the new Nobel laureate done so far in our region? Mitchell Shmitchell, a bitter and lost struggle over settlement expansion, a bizarre struggle against the Goldstone report, a disgraceful silence about the Gaza siege, and the ultimate proof that there’s nothing new under the Middle Eastern sun. It’s not Obama who “can,” it’s Israel. Israel can twist the arms of any president. You don’t want to freeze the settlements? Okay, never mind. You don’t want to take responsibility for the crimes in Gaza? Okay, never mind. You don’t want to end the occupation? Okay, never mind. This is not the conduct of a Nobel laureate and president.
A consolation prize: Perhaps the Nobel will serve as a catalyst, a kind of alarm clock ringing to wake the laureate in the final minute. Unlike in Afghanistan and Iraq, in this region he will not need to shed American blood to secure peace. It’s enough to show political determination, apply pressure and use Israel’s isolation and dependency for the cause of peace. Israel needs a friend to save it from itself.
Obama now needs to choose whether to join the laureates-in-vain – from Henry Kissinger to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat – or join the great ones, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Aung San Suu Kyi and Mother Teresa. It’s true, no one has ever won the prize twice (except the International Committee of the Red Cross), but no one has won it on a down payment, either. If Obama brings peace to the Middle East, perhaps Oslo will change its ways once more and grant him the Nobel again – once as a down payment, once by right. Congratulations, Mr. President, now it’s time to settle your debt.
GIDEON LEVY is a correspondent for Ha’aretz, where this article first appeared.