Israel and Obama: the tail wagging the dog

After U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel last week (perhaps pilgrimage is a more appropriate word), his landmark speech in Cairo in 2009 seems like a distant dream. “For more than 60 years, they’ve endured the pain of dislocation,” Obama said four years ago, referring to the Palestinians.

“Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they’ve never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable, and America won’t turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”

Those who rapturously applauded him at the time for expressing what no other U.S. president had said, or perhaps even felt, had to endure last week’s cringe-fest between him and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, dubbed the “Bibi and Barack show” by BBC North America editor Mark Mardell. Lips were puckered, cheeks kissed, and praise lavished. Obama “has gone out of his way to make Israel feel loved,” said Mardell.

“The flattery he heaped on Israel’s leader considerably exceeded diplomatic protocol,” wrote Gideon Levy, award-winning Haaretz columnist, and a member of the Israeli newspaper’s editorial board. “What good is flattering Israel if he isn’t making any demands of it? What good is his desire to speak to Israelis if he doesn’t plan to say anything to them except hollow, saccharine flattery? What good is this visit if no one seems to want concrete results from it?”

Obama’s itinerary

Obama reaffirmed the two countries’ “unbreakable bond,” restated “America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security,” declared that “our alliance is eternal,” that “standing by Israel is in America’s national security interests,” and that the United States had an “unprecedented”, “solemn” and “non-negotiable” obligation “to guarantee Israel’s security.” In case he had not made himself clear enough, Obama added that a “tough neighborhood has got tougher - we’ve got your back.”

What Obama can and must be blamed for is giving a false sense of hope that U.S. policy towards the Palestinians and the wider Arab world would be more balanced under his presidency

Sharif Nashashibi

He laid a wreath at Theodor Herzl’s grave, describing him as a “visionary who began the remarkable establishment of the State of Israel.” Never mind the millions of Palestinians who languish in refugee camps to this day as a result.

Obama met with children in the Israeli town of Sderot “who simply want to grow up free from fear.” Pity he did not care to visit fearful, besieged Palestinian children in Gaza - or anyone else there for that matter - just three kilometers away.

“People deserve to be free in a land of their own.” If anyone other than a U.S. politician had said this, one could reasonably assume that this was a reference to the Palestinians. Alas, Obama was speaking in admiration of Zionism, the very ideology that has denied a people’s freedom in their own land.

No surprises

I understand the revulsion that people feel about this unashamed love-in, but not the surprise and disappointment, because I never shared people’s messianic optimism about Obama’s election, particularly vis-a-vis the Arab world, to whom he pledged “a new beginning” in relations when he was elected.

Even if a U.S. president wanted to recalibrate America’s total subservience to Israel, even minimally, he would face a staunchly one-sided Congress (whether Democrat or Republican) that gives its ally billions of dollars a year in aid, not to mention some of the most influential lobby groups in the country, and a public brainwashed by media bias.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll, published last week, revealed that 55 percent of Americans sympathize more with Israel, compared with just 9 percent who side more with the Palestinian Authority. Seven in 10 do not want the United States to play a leading role as mediator, 15 percentage points higher than in the last ABC News/Washington Post poll. And 34 percent of Americans say the Obama administration has put too little pressure on the Palestinian Authority, with just 8 percent believing that too much pressure has been applied.

Politicians are almost by nature hungry for the attainment and maintenance of power. As such, those in democracies dare not defy public sentiment, even if they disagree with it. In the United States, this means blind support for Israel, fear of the gun lobby, and reluctance to place environmental concerns above economic interests or religious ideology, among other issues.

Those who continue to cling to the belief that a head of state in their last term in office can be more strident than their first - whether Obama or anyone else, whether in America or anywhere else - display considerable naivete. Even if they are not up for re-election, they are still interested in their party’s continued success, as well as their personal legacy - tackling tough, unpopular issues will achieve neither.

As such, Obama is not so much the problem as the powerful political establishment that surrounds him, the lobby groups that corrupt American democracy, and misinformed public perceptions that will only be changed at the grassroots level. What Obama can and must be blamed for is giving a false sense of hope that U.S. policy towards the Palestinians and the wider Arab world would be more balanced under his presidency.

Obama’s motives

He said he was not visiting Israel with any initiative to revive the ‘peace process,’ leading some to question the point of the trip. I believe Obama’s aim was threefold. He achieved a rapprochement between his two allies Israel and Turkey, which has implications for other regional issues such as Syria and Iran.

He was trying to mend his image problem among Israelis, who have a strong influence on his electorate, and did not take well to him daring to challenge Netanyahu over settlements early on in his presidency - a goal he has since abandoned. A Jerusalem Post poll last week found that 36 percent of Israelis think Obama is more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel, compared with 26 percent who believe the contrary.

Thirdly, he wants to start relations with a new government on a strongly positive note, putting the past tensions between him and Netanyahu behind them. What better way than grinning, back-slapping photo-opportunities, and the usual pledging of allegiance that is part of any U.S. official visit to Israel, a classic example of the tail wagging the dog.

Israeli extremism and opportunism

It does not hurt Obama domestically - on the contrary - and Israel has made a habit of using such visits to test American loyalty by announcing illegal, inflammatory decisions - such as further settlement expansion on occupied Palestinian territory - which it knows it will get away with.

Last week’s visit was no different. Just two days before Obama landed, Israel’s new housing minister Uri Ariel, himself a settler, said Netanyahu’s incoming cabinet would keep expanding settlements to the same extent as his previous government. “There can be only one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea - Israel,” Ariel added.

A day later, incoming deputy defense minister Danny Danon also vowed to expand settlements, as well as increase the Jewish presence in northern and southern parts of the country that have large Arab populations.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was greeted much the same way during his visit to Israel. As such, Palestinians should beg U.S. officials not to come, because it only makes matters worse, and with this new Israeli government, things look certain to head that way. The extremist credentials of its ministers are effectively and concisely summarized by Ben White, a researcher and writer for the Journal of Palestine Studies.

“The results of weeks of negotiations are awkward for those commentators and Israel advocacy groups who, after January’s election, suggested that the Israeli electorate had returned a ‘center’ or even ‘center-left’ government that would be open to meaningful peace talks,” wrote White, author of the books “Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide,” and “Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination & Democracy.”

“The only difference between the new government and the previous one is that the ultra-Orthodox are out and the settlers are in,” said Zahava Gal-On, head of the left-wing Meretz party. It is this new government that Obama is kow-towing to, but since this was to be expected, his visit should have been greeted with a collective yawn rather than the round-the-clock attention it received.

Obama in Palestine

Though he spent just a few hours in the West Bank, as opposed to days in Israel - again, a familiar imbalance with U.S. visits - his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was arguably of more interest.
Obama was greeted with protests by Palestinians who feel deeply betrayed by him, and rightly so, given that he then urged the victims of ongoing colonization to drop their demands for a freeze in settlement building as a precondition for peace talks.

Having caved to Netanyahu’s intransigence over this issue, Obama is now making the Palestinians look like the obstinate party for refusing to accept another people living illegally, forcefully, and in ever-greater numbers on their land. To add insult to injury, the only criticism Obama could muster about settlements - which Amnesty International describes as “inherently discriminatory” and a “war crime” - was that they were “not appropriate for peace.”

Luckily, Abbas flatly rejected Obama’s request at their joint press conference, defying media reports of speculation to the contrary, and surprising those who question Abbas’s backbone vis-a-vis Israel and the United States.

The American president said he remains committed to an independent Palestinian state, but this lip service means nothing from someone who opposes U.N. recognition of such a state, and gladly supports the policies that deny the very possibility of its existence, not to mention its viability.

Why mediate?

The hypocrisy is breathtaking, but again, totally predictable. Yet leaders in the region and beyond continue to urge the United States to play mediator, despite its unabashed alliance with the occupier against the occupied.

“If the United States does see itself as an honest broker, then the balance of power must be redressed,” Palestinian MP Dr Mustafa Barghouthi wrote in the New York Times last week. However, if “Obama feels that given the American relationship with Israel he is not able to mediate, then it would be better to admit this and step back, allowing others to take the lead,” added Barghouthi, secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative political party.

“The United States has the power to reinstate the elements required to help us achieve our rights and advance toward a lasting peace. The question is whether the U.S. has the will.” Obama has unequivocally answered that question. 

Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Last Update: Monday, 25 March 2013 KSA 19:12 - GMT 16:12
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