Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu returned to Washington this weekend for his annual love fest with AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is holding its annual Policy Committee meeting Sunday through Tuesday.
The President’s speech Thursday provided an overview of the changes now sweeping the Arab world. Late in that address, Obama turned to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Unfortunately, in linking the changes emerging from the Arab Spring to the future of the Palestinian Territory, the President was playing with a very bad hand.
He is a man locked into the rhetoric of the past, honed over decades by Israeli propagandists and Israel’s many friends in the US.
The President is a terrific orator. But his rhetoric in this speech needs a careful exegesis to bring out its blatant contradictions.
It is not easy to please Israel’s many friends in the US while attempting, rather desperately, to balance the suffering and the hopes of Israel and the Palestinians. He did not succeed.
Consider his first reference to the suffering of the two “sides”:
For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could get blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them.
For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own.
Note carefully how he illustrates the “two sides”, trying, unsuccessfully to balance the suffering of an occupier with that of the occupied. The Israeli suffering he cites is that of children who live in fear of dying. His example of Palestinian suffering is more abstract, the humiliation of occupation and the quest for nationhood.
The bombing of Israeli buses is from the past; the suffering of Palestinian children, which the president does not specifically mention, is existential, ongoing, constant and a daily threat with no end in sight.
President Obama said he would talk about “security and territory”. He would “put off” the sensitive issues of refugees and Jerusalem, the same sensitive issues negotiators have “put off” for decades.
President Obama also dutifully followed the Zionist line that the “two parties” should negotiate between themselves. Any involvement by the United Nations is merely symbolic and is harmful to Israel. Here is his specific complaint:
For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.
“Delegitimize Israel”? How does recognizing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders “delegitimize Israel?”
And what is “symbolic” about the UN recognizing a Palestinian state? It is not “symbolic”; it is a legitimizing action on behalf of the Palestinians just as much as the UN’s creation of the Israeli state in 1948 was a legitimizing action.
The President continued:
Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.
The President was talking about UN recognition before he moved quickly into the issue of Hamas which he insists on calling a “terrorist” organization.
The trouble with tossing in the “right to exist” phrase, is that Obama ignores the fact that nations do not have the “right to exist”. They simply exist within borders that their neighbors accept as legitimate because of historical circumstances. There are no “rights” involved.
It is embarrassing for our president to allow himself to be dragged into using the Zionist “right to exist” shibboleth (See Judges 12 for the term’s origins.).
And while we are reflecting on President Obama’s embrace of traditional Israeli-American propaganda language, these two short sentences do not sound like Obama; rather, they sound like something lifted from a White House manual on “How to Speak Israeli”:
As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable.
What exactly is this “shared history” and what exactly are our “shared values”?
Modern Israel’s history begins in 1948. Aside from pushing the UN to recognize the state, and selling it arms, what have we shared? OK, we did share the pragmatic belief that Israel was our bulwark against communism in the Middle East.
In his report on the White House Friday meeting between Netanyahu and Obama, Jewish blogger Richard Silverstein includes an incisive reminder of what “shared values” now mean to American politicians, from the far religious right to the Obama White House:
Obama again, in remarks after the two-hour meeting, noted that Israel was a “Jewish state” making no reference to the fact that it was also composed of a significant minority of non-Jewish citizens. It would be as if a foreign leader congratulated the US. for being a Christian nation. It sure would make John Hagee happy.
When Obama bragged, in his speech, about the US killing of Osama bin Laden, he was providing a further example of the values that Israel and the US share. Our Navy Seals killed an unarmed man who could have been sedated and delivered to the American judicial system. Was that option even considered in advance?
A trial for Osama bin Laden would have been more consistent with our American values than the practice of assassinating enemies, a standard we learned from our Israeli friends, who have long killed their opponents by assassinations.
In his speech, Obama asserts that “every state has the right to self-defense”.
Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security.
Makes sense. No nation wants to be without the ability to defend its own citizens. But, then Obama adds this remarkable exception:
The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state.
This is a convoluted sentence that could be construed to suggest that when Israel withdraws its military forces from the Occupied Palestinian Territory, it will continue to provide “security” for the new sovereign state of Palestine, which will not have its own military forces.
Or, does the sentence say that Palestine will be left with no defenses? Difficult to tell from this sentence in what was reported to be some frantic, last minute speech revisions.
Whatever it was intended to say, the defense exception for Palestine is a stunningly ugly example of Obama’s embrace of Zionist–as in, whatever is best for Israel–values.
Three days before Obama’s speech, President Mahmoud Abbas wrote a guest column for the New York Times. He began with a story:
Sixty-three years ago, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was forced to leave his home in the Galilean city of Safed and flee with his family to Syria. He took up shelter in a canvas tent provided to all the arriving refugees.
Though he and his family wished for decades to return to their home and homeland, they were denied that most basic of human rights. That child’s story, like that of so many other Palestinians, is mine.
President Abbas linked his personal story to the decision of his government to request international recognition as a state along the 1967 borders. That request will also ask that the new state of Palestine be “admitted as a full member of the United Nations.” Abbas added:
Many are questioning what value there is to such recognition while the Israeli occupation continues. Others have accused us of imperiling the peace process. We believe, however, that there is tremendous value for all Palestinians — those living in the homeland, in exile and under occupation. . . .
Palestine’s admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one. It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice.
Our quest for recognition as a state should not be seen as a stunt; too many of our men and women have been lost for us to engage in such political theater.
We go to the United Nations now to secure the right to live free in the remaining 22 percent of our historic homeland because we have been negotiating with the State of Israel for 20 years without coming any closer to realizing a state of our own.
The Barack Obama who said in his May 19 speech that the US “will oppose an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others”, is not the Barack Obama who dismisses the Palestinian appeal to the UN General Assembly as merely a “symbolic action” designed “to isolate Israel”.
The Obama speech was both a missed opportunity and a sad failure.
The picture of the Palestinian woman with a flag at the top of this page, and the picture of Mahmoud Abbas, are from Intifada Palestine.