Monday, June 08, 2009

Width and quality of Barack Obama’s peace commitments

Ian Williams: Tribune
June 8, 2009 12:00

Reversing Bill Clinton’s election dictum, Barack Obama shows an admirable attention span. “It’s not just the economy, stupid.” No one can accuse him of neglecting the economy, but one of the lessons being reinforced is that he needs to pull the political process with him. This is particularly important when the Democratic Party in Congress has a vociferous and disloyal group of rightists who will vote with the Republicans at the drop of a hat in the name of moderation.

That is one of the explanations for Obama’s incremental strategy on the Middle East. Faced with the most obtuse and self-centred set of Israeli leaders, he has to cover his rear carefully and so far the Likud-led coalition of zealots is playing into his hands.

Readers of a certain age may remember David Kossof on television playing a Jewish tailor whose watchword was “Never mind the quality – feel the width.” He seems to have written the script for recent Israeli diplomacy, which has been predicated on talking to politicians who truly and sincerely want the wool pulled over their eyes.

Things have changed. Binyamin Netanyahu came to see Obama and wanted a quick deadline for an attack on Iran. Despite his crowing, he got a promise of open-ended negotiations with Tehran and a warning that the Americans thought that settlement building was a more urgent problem. He and Ehud Barak came to the United States and talked fiercely about how they were going to close a few dozen “illegal outposts” by hook or by crook in the hope that the continuing settlement building would go unremarked.

Obama and his inner circle, well aware that some of these “illegal” outposts had been “closed” repeatedly and that in any case were provided with water, roads, electricity and security by the various government departments, were less impressed. They all sang from the same hymn sheet: no building in the Occupied Territories.

It is a measure of how much Israeli governments have got away with that this one is indignant about US “diktats”, when one of the Israeli commitments in the famous road map is a halt to settlement building.

Netanyahu and his government wanted to talk about alleged Palestinian failures to follow road map commitments. Obama’s officials keep reminding them that the US supports the two-state solution. Netanyahu and most of his cabinet have consistently opposed a Palestinian state, which somewhat devalues their complaints about Palestinian reluctance to admit it was a good thing they were thrown out of their homes. Obama even had the chutzpah to remind Israel of its repeated promises to open the gates to Gaza.

Equally, on the quality versus width dimension, Israeli complaints about the potential for Iran to become a nuclear power are disingenuous. Iran does not have nuclear weapons while Israel has several hundred of them and refuses to sign the NPT. Imagine the shock when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – of all people – suggested that they should sign up.
In all of this, Israeli indignation is necessarily forced and strained. All they are being asked to do is to abide by their own promises, let alone by international law.

Obama’s cautious and non-confrontational strategy of attrition is also paying off domestically. Netanyahu spoke to the AIPAC conference, but the Israel lobby’s traditional posture went into reverse. In times past, its guiding principle was to follow whatever policy the Israeli government wanted. Now the lobby endorsed the two-state solution that the Israeli Prime Minister abhors and, after many years of swinging rightwards, thinks a liberal Democrat Congress and White House may be a good excuse for a change of tack.

One factor in this may be that there is now an alternative Israel lobby. J-Street, only recently founded, has made great inroads. Despite the lack of funding from conservative Zionists and Christian evangelists, it actually represents the much more nuanced, progressive and peace-tending views of most American Jews, whose support for Obama among ethnic groups is only matched by Arabs and blacks.

Administration sources are even suggesting it may be possible that, the next time the United Nations Security Council considers Israeli behaviour, Netanyahu will lose the protection of the automatic American veto that Israel has enjoyed for four presidential terms.

Such a course of action would send a message to the Israeli electorate that there are serious consequences to having a racist government. With a few exceptions, Israelis know their country’s existence, and their living standards have depended on American financial and military support.

With bills in the Knesset from cabinet members threatening to disenfranchise non-Jews, Netanyahu’s guaranteed combative statements, Congressional support for Likud will fade.
And the economic crisis even offers opportunity. If Obama, more in sorrow than in anger, is forced to threaten cuts in US aid to Israel, he simply has to ask embattled voters whether they really want to send taxpayers’ money to an ungrateful nation that refuses to live up to its commitments and flies in the face of accepted US and international policies. Never mind the quantity, just watch the width of the gap.

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