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In a demonstration of humility and remorse about which Palestinians can only fantasise, the President “brokered an apology” from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to Turkey for the killing of nine activists on the Gaza flotilla ship Mavi Marmara in May 2010.
The countries will now apparently move towards reestablishing “normal” relations, which in this case include military and security cooperation and greater Turkish access to and influence in Gaza, where it has already pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in investment.
Palestinians, as usual, got nothing.
Unless you count watching the most powerful politician in the world fawn over the leaders and citizens of the country that continues to occupy you with impunity, and then having to listen to him urge you to stop asking for the very thing he once demanded – a settlement freeze – and return to negotiations without preconditions.
Words With(out) Meaning
President Obama is not George W. Bush, who had little concern for the details of policy and would read whatever pablum his neocon speechwriters wrote about “democracy” and “freedom” and “God.” The current President is famously involved in the writing of his speeches, and so the words he said in Israel can be assumed to be largely his or written under his direction.
He also knows a thing or two about the realities facing Palestinians, given that a) he’s not an idiot, and b) he once actually had at least one Palestinian friend who told him the truth about his people’s history and life under occupation (then University of Chicago Professor Rashid Khalidi, whom he publicly threw under a bus as soon as he was nominated in 2008. But hey, what are friends for?)
So we have to assume that the President chose his itinerary and his words in his public utterances very carefully, and understood precisely what effect, or lack thereof, they would have on the peace process he says he wants to reinvigorate. Obama’s speech to Israeli students in Jerusalem was the defining public moment of his trip, so let’s see what precisely he said and what it might mean.
Reviews in the mainstream media have generally been positive. Even The Guardian‘s Ian Black lauded the “emotional and political intelligence” of the speech.
That’s certainly one way to look at it. Another way to look at it, however, is that it was a political moonwalk – meant to give the illusion of moving forward when in fact it ensured the peace process moves backwards into history’s ash heap.
Obama and Bibi – BFF!
Obama began by informing the audience that at his first meeting between “me and my friend Bibi” he “reaffirmed the bonds between our two countries.” He then broadened that friendship to one between the two countries, explicitly linking the biblical history of Israel to America’s. Both, he explained, shared a history of “perseverance amidst persecution… [of] finding freedom in your own land.”
In fact, the President devoted six paragraphs to discussing Israel’s ancient history and how its influenced America’s. He even managed to bring Martin Luther King into the speech, quoting some of his final words to reinforce the ties between the ancient Jewish and modern black experience (as usual, he spent exactly zero on Palestinian history, but who’s counting?)
The President went on to laud Israel for “making the desert bloom” (that would be the desert upon which Bedouins lived for centuries before being evicted by Israel, a process that continues to this very day on both sides of the Green Line).
He praised it for its “broadened the middle class” (in fact, inequality has become so bad in Israel that it ranks near the bottom of every measure of advanced countries, but why let statistics ruin a good story?).
He also stressed Israel’s “thriving democracy, spirit civil society, proud political parties” (never mind that the majority of them, and increasing Israeli society at large are overtly racist), and “lively public debate” (unless, of course you’re a Palestinian, or a foreigner or even an Israeli activist working in support of Palestinian rights. Then debate can land you in a jail cell, hospital or morgue).
Security! Growth! Democracy!With such a setup, Obama could conclude this part of the speech by declaring that “together, we share a commitment to security for our citizens and the stability of the Middle East and North Africa. Together, we share a focus on advancing economic growth around the globe, and strengthening the middle class within our own countries. Together, we share a stake in the success of democracy.”
Who are the threats to the success of this US-Israeli led democracy drive? Why, Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, of course.
Obama couldn’t be more sympathetic: “You live in a neighborhood where many of your neighbors have rejected the right of your nation to exist. Your grandparents had to risk their lives and all that they had to make a place for themselves in this world. Your parents lived through war after war to ensure the survival of the Jewish state. Your children grow up knowing that people they’ve never met may hate them because of who they are, in a region that is full of turmoil and changing underneath your feet.”
We could be forgiven for imagining the President was talking about Palestinians, not Israelis. Until, that is, we realize that he could never say this about Israel, despite being as accurate in referring to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians (and surrounding Arab governments as well) as it is of the historic Arab treatment of, and attitude, towards Israel.
Moving on, the President declares that “Israel has taken risks for peace. Brave leaders – Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin – reached treaties with two of your neighbors. You made credible proposals to the Palestinians at Annapolis. You withdrew from Gaza and Lebanon, and then faced terror and rockets. Across the region, you’ve extended a hand of friendship and all too often you’ve been confronted with rejection and, in some cases, the ugly reality of anti-Semitism.”
Again, Obama is not an idiot. He knows that this narrative is utter nonsense. Or rather, he has no excuse not to know this narrative is essentially a lie. That Begin violated the Camp David agreements before the ink was even dry (he refused to proceed with moving towards full Palestinian autonomy, which constituted the majority of the agreement’s text, very likely costing Anwar Sadat his life in so doing).
Rabin, while so fondly remembered, had also backed away from implementing the early Oslo agreements by the time of his death, while doing nothing to stop the settlements.
Obama knows that there was no credible proposal at Annapolis, unless you consider proposals for a non-territorially or economically viable Palestinian entity credible.
He knows that Israel withdrew from Gaza only to place it under siege and bomb it with routine impunity. Or that its occupation of Lebanon was, like its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, a giant war crime which brutalized a country and gave rise to the very enemies – Hezbollah and Hamas – that the President now cites as major threats.
Obama also knows that Israel has extended the hand of friendship only to dictators and kings, never to the people of the region and in particular – despite the famous photo on the White House lawn, and never to Palestinians in any meaningful sense.
Helping the medicine go down?
Perhaps we should excuse the President his words. Ultimately, they were, so it’s argued by many people I know, just a prelude to the seemingly remarkable mid-section of the speech, when he actually told the truth about Israel’s choices. “I want you to know that I speak to you as a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future, and I ask you to consider three points,” Obama began.
“First, peace is necessary. I believe that. I believe that peace is the only path to true security. You have the opportunity to be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future. Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.” That is true. There are other factors involved.
“So peace is necessary,” he continued. “But peace is also just. Peace is also just. There is no question that Israel has faced Palestinian factions who turned to terror, leaders who missed historic opportunities. That is all true… But the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice, must also be recognized. “
(We can just imagine the young people of Ramallah, Jenin and Khan Younis jumping out of their seats with ululations of praise at these words. Or perhaps not… In fact, when he visited Ramallah not long after the speech, he was booed with a chorus of “Obama out, out! You are not welcome here!” and “Son of a bitch,” “coward,” “serpent’s head.”)
Obama then asked Israelis to “Put yourself in their shoes,” and it is here where he, briefly, seemed to speak the truth:“Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own; living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or displace Palestinian families from their homes. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.
It is precisely these words which have led so many people to declare Obama’s speech ground-breaking, or at least unusually honest and forthright. But in fact it is neither, and indeed, it is much worse.
Israelis have been told to “walk a mile in Palestinian moccasins” – to borrow the old and particularly apt Native American prayer – for decades, certainly since the first “people to people” attempts at peace-building started in the 1980s.
They know very well what Palestinians are suffering through because it is at their hands that they are suffering. Whatever ignorance exists in Israel about the historical or contemporary plight of Palestinians is willful.
But Obama can’t admit that. Rather, he has to come and pretend he’s giving them new advice, which then allows the entire slate of the last generation of failed negotiations and greater settlement and occupation to be wiped clean.
What Obama could not say, but what he surely has been told and must understand, is that the vast majority of Jewish Israelis know full well what Palestinians are going through, and just don’t care.
Obama clearly thought he could appeal to their sense of survival as a “democracy” by quoting none other than Ariel Sharon: “It is impossible to have a Jewish democratic state, and at the same time to control all of Eretz Israel.”
But again, I’m betting the President knows full well that Israelis increasingly don’t place much of a premium on their country’s supposed democratic foundations.
It is Sharon more than anyone else who is responsible for the real two-state solution in the offing – a Greater Israel that includes the West Bank with Palestinians slowly, over several decades, being granted fuller Israeli citizenship, while Gaza becomes Palestine, under the trusteeship of Israel’s (re)new(ed) Turkish friends, Qatar, and a compliant Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt.
So, then, was Obama just being duplicitous when he got around to his third point, that peace is possible?
It depends how you define duplicity. Similar to his 2009 Cairo speech, the President declared the obvious but offered no concrete actions towards achieving the stated goal of greater democracy or development.
In Jerusalem, he specifically argued that peace is possible, and there are “hard choices” and “costs for failure” (as he warned his Israeli audience before adopting the current Israeli negotiating position that “Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security”).
And he even declared that “Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable with real borders that have to be drawn.”
But Obama’s words ring hollow, for two reasons: First, there is no sanction for Israel not doing what it “must;” and thus there’s no reason for it to change its behavior. Second, it’s not merely that talk is cheap, although it so clearly is.
Obama used the occasion of his first Presidential visit to Israel to make a speech that says nothing new (Bush said much the same thing when he visited Israel), makes no demands on Israel to make any hard choices (in fact, publicly moves away from previous demands) and outlines zero consequences if Israel fails to make such hard choices.
In effect, this is a very badly executed diplomatic moonwalk – at first glance it might appear to be moving the diplomatic process forward but in fact is moving it dangerously backwards, precisely because, by the President’s own admission, there is very little time left before a two-state solution becomes impossible.
Essentially, Obama is like the “good friend” who lectures a drunk at a bar about driving under influence and then hands him the keys to his Hummer after he’s not only watched him drink all night long, but picked up the tab.
The President sprinkled his speech with Hebrew, no doubt further to demonstrate his love for Israel. But in fact Yiddish would work far better in the present situation.
So let’s talk takhlis – Mr. President. If “Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world,” and that country will continue to ply it with money, weapons, and diplomatic cover no matter how it behaves, then neither Israel’s leaders nor the “young people” to whom you were so excited to speak, are going to do anything to change the status quo.
You are a smart man, so you must know this, and also understand that it means the peace you say you desire will remain as elusive during your second term as it was during your first.
If you’re okay with this, or feel you don’t have the power to change it, it would be nice if you could admit as much in your next speech. At least then everyone – and especially Americans – will have no illusions about where the US stands.
Only then can we begin preparing for the bi or one-state solution which, truth be told, even in the best of times was likely the only outcome this century-old conflict would ever see.