Obama, Israel, and the Ideology of Difference

By Roger H. Lieberman

Few American presidents have entered office with more daunting challenges to overcome, at home and abroad, than those Barack Obama now faces.

Internationally, President Obama must facilitate the withdrawal of US troops and mercenaries from Iraq; avoid further escalation of the war in Afghanistan; resolve America’s diplomatic feud with Iran over its nuclear program; and stop the downward spiral of US-Russian relations toward the precipice of a new Cold War (or worse).

Domestically, he must reverse the rapid deterioration of the US economy – a deterioration brought on by years of bad credit and neglect of civic infrastructure. It is doubtful whether Obama can make substantive progress on any of these matters unless he is first willing and able to take on the overriding moral challenge of his presidency: ending Israel’s ruthless, illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories, and reconfiguring America’s diplomatic and military role in the region. Alas, it is even more doubtful whether he is prepared to put principles over political expedience in order to achieve a just peace in the Holy Land.

‘Let Me Be Clear’

Obama took the oath of office on a frigid afternoon in Washington, DC just days after a ceasefire suspended Israel’s foul, despicable onslaught against the impoverished Gaza Strip – among the most appalling crimes it has perpetrated against the Palestinians to date. With nearly 1400 Palestinians – the majority civilians, and nearly one-third of them children – dead after a mindless three-week Israeli blitz that included some of the most fiendish weapons of modern warfare, the urgency of a dramatic US policy reversal could not be more stark. Yet Obama’s first official comments regarding Palestine – on the occasion of his appointment of George Mitchell as Mideast envoy – amounted to little more than pouring old, sour wine into new (or, perhaps, not so new) bottles.

For starters, Obama defended Israel’s grotesque rampage – which involved attacks on schools, hospitals, and United Nations relief centers – as an act of “self-defense”:

“Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel’s security. And we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself against legitimate threats.”

These are not words likely to encourage better behavior on the part of the Israelis. On the contrary, Tzipi Livni and her cohorts must be euphoric that after a “battle” – in reality, a massacre – in which 99 percent of the fatalities were Palestinian, Israel’s obnoxious “self-defense” propaganda still carries weight with the White House.

In an obvious effort to distance himself from the worst obscenities of George W. Bush’s Mideast policy, Obama sought to balance his defense of the indefensible with dismay over Gaza’s worsening humanitarian crisis:

 “Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water, and basic medical care, and who’ve faced suffocating poverty for far too long.”

Something doesn’t quite add up here. First, the President expresses unrestrained support for Israel’s attacks. Then he laments the nightmarish conditions that are their direct consequence – without openly acknowledging Israel’s culpability.

Just what did Obama expect would happen when the Israelis attacked a virtually defenseless, grindingly impoverished, and densely populated enclave with tanks, artillery, and fighter jets – especially after months of medieval siege? Does he really believe that the crude, paltry rockets fired at southern Israel by Hamas militants – immoral and irresponsible as they unquestionably have been – justify such totalitarian thuggery? Does he really take Israel’s claims of “self-defense” at face value? Does he really think that the massive civilian casualties in Gaza are incidental to Israel’s actual (as opposed to propagandized) objectives? Or, like Clinton and Bush before him, is he simply seeking to substitute damage control for meaningful diplomacy?

Obama’s comments regarding Mitchell’s mission, and the prospects for a negotiated peace, provide further evidence that damage control is, in fact, the order of the day:

“Lasting peace requires more than a long ceasefire, and that’s why I will sustain an active commitment to seek two states living side by side in peace and security. Senator Mitchell will carry forward this commitment, as well as the effort to help Israel reach a broader peace with the Arab world that recognizes its rightful place in the community of nations. I should add that the Arab peace initiative contains constructive elements that could help advance these efforts. Now is the time for Arab states to act on the initiative’s promise by supporting the Palestinian government under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, taking steps toward normalizing relations with Israel, and by standing up to extremism that threatens us all.”

The cockeyed optimist might be inclined to emphasize Obama’s pledge to support a two-state solution as a harbinger of progress. But his subsequent lines let the air out of the balloon quickly. Nowhere in his monologue did Obama mention Israel’s illegal, four-decade-old occupation – despite the fact that this has been the overarching reality of Palestinian life in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as Gaza. Nor are Israel’s checkpoints, settlements, bypass roads, resource theft, economic de-development, or Apartheid Wall (sorry, “Separation Fence”) acknowledged as the gross violations of international law, and the moral precepts of the civilized world, that they are.

On the contrary, the way Obama described it, an extraterrestrial visitor who didn’t know better might get the impression that it was the Palestinians occupying Israel – not vice versa! Time and again, he placed the onus on the Arab states to normalize relations with the Israelis, and on the Palestinian Authority to combat extremism – not on the Israelis to acknowledge Palestinian rights. According to Obama, the Arab Peace Initiative – which, in its entirety, constitutes the sole viable plan in existence for a two-state compromise – merely “contains constructive elements” (namely, Arab normalization with Israel) that, with proper finagling, might be incorporating into a proposal more solicitous of Israeli expansionism.

Oslo, Oslo

Obama’s irksome commentary left me with a single word flashing in my mind, rather like a neon sign at a motel where one would be most hesitant to spend the night: “OSLO… OSLO… OSLO”! The “active commitment” he described sounds uncomfortably like Bill Clinton’s dishonest “honest brokering” of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” in the 1990s: a policy that ultimately accomplished nothing but to facilitate Israel’s settlement expansion and land expropriation, foster a corrupt Palestinian Authority, and exacerbate political differences between Fatah and Hamas.

What made the Oslo process such a tragic failure was that it ludicrously placed the burden of proof on the occupied people, not on the occupier. According to Israel’s play book, it was the job of the Palestinian Authority to suppress popular resistance – not to help their people build a viable, self-sufficient state coexisting with Israel on dignified terms. When Yasser Arafat ultimately balked at the “generous offer” by which Ehud Barak had hoped to place a rubber stamp of legitimacy on an undignified Palestinian-Israeli relationship, Israel’s US apologists quickly reduced him to pariah status. Only at the bitter end did the Clinton Administration offer a serious challenge to Israel’s diktats, and this change of strategy did produce a modicum of progress at the January 2001 Taba conference. But by then it was too late to save either the peace process or Bill Clinton’s legacy – tarnished as it was by one of the most nauseating and sophomoric political scandals in American history.

There is little reason to doubt that an Oslo-like policy on the part of Obama would have similar consequences – if not worse ones – today. Palestinians – reeling from eight years of Israeli collective punishment, the factional quarrel between Fatah and Hamas, and countless broken American promises – cannot afford another seven-year wild goose chase for a negotiated settlement while Israel continues to fragment and selectively digest the 22 percent of historical Palestine comprised by the Occupied Territories.

Nor, for that matter, can the United States afford such wasted time. In the waning months of Bush’s presidency, Americans learned the hard truth about the dangers of bad fiscal credit at home – as the US economy soured more rapidly than an open carton of milk on an August afternoon. Simultaneously, we have seen the consequences of bad moral credit abroad – as our own horrendous violations of international law, combined with our support for Israel’s, have encouraged other nations, including Russia, to follow our bad example. The future prospects for world peace and prosperity cannot be good if the Obama Administration does not rise to the occasion on Palestine.

Failure to condemn the Israeli government as the cadre of war criminals they have shown themselves to be, and to place firm pressure on them to accept the Arab Peace Initiative as a whole – not just the parts of it they like – will render progress on all other diplomatic fronts almost impossible. Without a just peace in the Holy Land, the Obama Administration won’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to dealing with Iran’s Ahmedinajad. Without a humanitarian response to Gaza’s suffering that places responsibility for it where it belongs, the US will not be able to exert pressure, via the leading Arab states, to stop the repression in Darfur. Without a commitment to enforcing international law vis a vis Israel, the West will lack the credibility to deal prudently with Russia.

Simple Truths

It would seem, however, that before any tangible reformation of US Mideast policy can take place, certain simple truths will have to be embraced by persons who long, long ago should have acknowledged them. First and foremost, there is no burden of proof on Palestinians to demonstrate that they are “deserving” of self-determination and dignity in their native land. If the outstanding achievements of so many Palestinian men and women, at home and in diaspora, in the fields of education, literature, art, medicine, physical science, and entrepreneurship are not sufficient to demonstrate this, I know not what will. Second, there is no moral onus on either the Palestinians or the Arab states to accept normalization with Israel on terms less equitable than those outlined in the Arab Peace Initiative. To maintain otherwise necessitates accepting the outlandish and unconscionable premise that Israeli Jews are, somehow, inherently superior to all other Middle Easterners – and therefore have some sort of special mandate to expand their territory at the expense of their neighbors. None of Israel’s technological or political achievements legitimize such preposterous bigotry, as these must always be weighed against the appalling costs to the Palestinians which Israel’s aggrandizement has entailed for six decades. True, the Israelis have drip irrigation and water-efficient latrines. But they also have cluster bombs and white phosphorus.

The greatest threat to Israel’s security does not stem from any regional military or paramilitary threat, but rather from what the great Palestinian-American scholar and activist Edward Said once called “an ideology of difference”. Ever since 1948, Israel’s political and military establishment has been so single-minded in its quest to forge a national identity that embraced Jews from around the world to the exclusion of Palestinian Muslims and Christians that scarcely any serious thought has been given to how Israel might interact on terms of equality with the other nations of the Levant – as opposed to being “an army with a country”. This deeply weird attitude flies in the face of striking similarities between Israeli and Palestinian culture – not least of which, the food, music, dancing, and poetry. Moreover, genetic studies have consistently affirmed that the majority of the world’s Jews are extremely close to Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese – a conclusion in excellent accord with the findings of physical anthropology, archeology, and recorded history.

History will one day record it as tragically ironic if Barack Obama – a man whose achievements personify the power of American democracy to transcend prejudice and embrace talented men and women whose origins span the globe – fails to broker a just peace between two peoples who share so much in common, beyond the superficial and tragic dichotomy of settler and native. The world expects great deeds from America’s new Commander-in-Chief, and ending Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people is arguably the most urgent of all. There are those who would argue that it is unrealistic to expect such a breakthrough from the man who appointed Rahm Emmanuel as his Chief-of-Staff, and Hillary Clinton as his Secretary-of-State. But the fact remains that we live in at a time in the history of the world in which expecting anything less than the best from our elected leaders is dangerous, if not fatal, to humanity’s future.

-Roger H. Lieberman is a graduate of Rutgers University in New Jersey with Master’s Degrees in History and Environmental Science. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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