by James M. Wall
Last week was a good week for Barack Obama: High level meetings with Afghanistan and Iraqi civilian leaders, a formal meeting in Baghdad with the U.S. military commander in the country, Gen. David Petraeus, a made-for-television event with 200,000 screaming fans in Berlin, and private presidential-like conversations with French and British leaders.
There was also quality private time with Jordan’s King Abdullah, who personally drove his guest to Obama’s jet which was parked on the tarmac at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport. That drive followed a private meeting after the king had hosted the senator at a dinner at his Beit Al Urdan palace.
Palestinians watching from across the Jordan River took notice of Obama’s willingness to confer with King Abdullah at some length. And while they were glad to have a neighboring Arab king meeting with Obama, it was hard not to notice the sharp contrast between Abdullah’s visit and the 45 minutes the senator allotted to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad.
That quick visit was not exactly an overwhelming nod to the two PA Fatah leaders, but it was at least “a notch up” from John McCain’s phone call to Abbas on McCain’s trip to Jerusalem in March.
Israel clearly dictated all of the details of this leg of the Obama trip. During the 36 hours Obama was in Israel-Palestine, he visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem and the town of Sderot near Gaza, which has consistently been struck with rocket fire fired from Gaza.
He also made the ceremonial stop at the Western Wall to pray and stuff a private prayer in a crack in the wall. (The prayer was quickly stolen, apparently by a Jewish seminary student. It was later printed in an Israeli newspaper, a serious invasion of the visitor’s privacy. ) Obama made no stops in the West Bank except for his meeting with Abbas and Fayad. He was not exposed to the numerous checkpoints on the ground, but he could hardly escape seeing the “security wall” that cuts into Palestinan territory and surrounds major Palestinian cities.
No where on the trip was there the slightest acknowledgement of the burdensome military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, except as a necessity for Israel’s security. Nor was any attention paid to the Hamas party which won control of the PA legislature in the elections of 2006. Once Hamas won that election, Israel branded Hamas as a “terrorist” group unworthy to govern; the US and the European Union dutifully fell into line.
The Obama campaign still labors under the conventional Washington wisdom that AIPAC speaks exclusively for all American Jewish voters. The campaign trip planners let the “AIPAC speech Obama” rather than the “racially-nuanced Philadelphia speech Obama” prevail in the 36 hours he spent in Israel and Palestine. This was a bad decision by the campaign, and presumably, by Obama as well.
M.J. Rosenberg calls the manner in politicians relate to Israel, the “default position”. It is easy and it is profitable. The candidate or the member of Congress does not even need to love Israel or even know how to find it on a map:
There is no political downside to simply going with the lobby on the Middle East. It’s like what Jackie Kennedy said: you can’t be too rich or too thin. In American politics, you can’t be “too pro-Israel.” A politician knows that all they have to do is say that they are for Israel, and against the Palestinians, and they will be deemed a “staunch supporter” of Israel and the campaign money will flow their way.
In short, supporting the status quo is a wonderfully lucrative path of least resistance. That is why it is the default position for every politician. It’s easy, risk-free, costs nothing but pays great returns. Of course, it also adds significantly to Israel’s security problems–and America’s declining strategic position in the Middle East.
Obama and his staff are unwisely ignoring the shift in the mood of the American public toward Israel among both Jews and non Jews. Richard Silverstein, writing in the London Guardian, reports on findings from a recent poll conducted among Jewish voters by the moderate Jewish lobby J Street, that suggest the mood on the US street is not what it was in the Bush-Clinton-Bush eras.
One question in the poll asked if Israel played a “big role” in a particular voter’s decisions. More than half responded “yes”. But when compared to other issues, “Israel came out in the bottom tier of issues”.
Only 8% listed Israel as one of their two top issues in determining their vote for president or Congress. To these voters, Israel remains an important political issue. But other issues, including the economy and the Iraq war were seen as “far more important”. The J Street poll concludes that “support for the Israel lobby is actually quite shallow among the Jewish community.”
If this poll is correct, it should no longer be necessary for Candidate Obama to pander to the AIPAC version of American Jewish voters. Instead he should offer our “staunch ally” Israel what New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof calls “tough love”:
On his visit to the Middle East, Barack Obama gave ritual affirmations of his support for Israeli policy, but what Israel needs from America isn’t more love, but tougher love. Particularly at a time when Israel seems to be contemplating military strikes on Iranian nuclear sites, the United States would be a better friend if it said: “That’s crazy” — while also insisting on a 100 percent freeze on settlements in the West Bank and greater Jerusalem.
Friends and allies don’t pander to one another. Friends and allies don’t “enable” the other to continue along a destructive path. Tough love demands honesty and an appeal to what is best for all parties concerned.
Kristof offers other issues which could be a part of the “tough love” Israel needs to hear: If Israel has to build a fence for what it considers its security needs, let them do so, but “construct it on the 1967 borders, not Palestinian land — and especially not where it divides Palestinian farmers from their land.”
Kristof adds as a part of his “tough love” guidance the need for facing the imbalance of the price paid in human life on both sides of the conflict. He provides statistics from B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, which “reports that a total of 123 Israeli minors have been killed by Palestinians since the second intifada began in 2000, compared with 951 Palestinian minors killed by Israeli security forces.” That is the sort of factual reality which American voters need to face.
When the Israel Lobby launched its attack on Jimmy Carter’s book, Peace not Apartheid, Dennis Ross, the pro-Israel operative who managed Middle Eastern affairs for both the first George Bush and Bill Clinton, played the Good Cop to Alan Dershovitz’s Bad Cop in their well-orchestrated effort to discredit Carter. The campaign failed.
The attacks on Carter only increased the book’s sales and linked “apartheid” with Israel in Middle America. It may also have contributed to the growing resentment among Jewish voters that blind loyalty to Israel can be counter-productive.
With his track record, it was, therefore, not encouraging to discover Dennis Ross traveling with Obama on his trip to Israel and the Occupied Territories as an “advisor”. This is the same Ross who continues to maintain that the 2000 Camp David discussions led to a “generous offer” from Clinton and Israel to Yasir Arafat, when it was neither an “offer”, and was anything but “generous”.
Obama can display a “tough love” toward Israel as a signal to all parties involved that in his administration neither pro-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian diplomats will control his Middle East policy making. What should and hopefully will, control his policy is his personal belief that justice, human rights and the well-being of all the citizens of the region will remain at the heart of his foreign policy agenda.