Obama: New Neo-Con?


I’m currently in the US on a book tour and I’ve been struck by the ubiquitous belief that Obama will soon reveal his progressive side. He’s yet to assume office but that he’ll be a conservative Democrat on foreign policy is denied by realists and dreamers alike.

A few nights ago at the New York Public Library I attended a fascinating discussion between former Speaker of the Israeli Knesset Avraham Burg and historian Omer Bartov. Burg says that Israel must get past its Holocaust mentality in order to achieve a lasting peace in the region. He fears that this is unlikely to be achieved on current trends. A longer report on the evening by my friend, blogger and writer Phil Weiss, is here.

Burg’s new book, The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise From its Ashes, expands these arguments thoroughly. The debate was both necessary and illuminating, not least because it revealed the paucity of thinking in the Zionist establishment.

Burg, a religious Jew who has spent most of his adult life immersed in the Zionist movement, now wants an honest appraisal of the damage this ideology has wreaked on his country and the Palestinians. "We’re so traumatised by the memories [of the Holocaust]", he said, "and maybe we’ll never get over it. Maybe a nation can’t get past it."

"We monopolise suffering," he continued. "Holocausts only happen to us. We must be more generous to others. The Holocaust must be removed from nearly daily use and manipulation in Israeli society."

Burg and Bartov talked excessively about "utopian" ideas for Israel and barely mentioned the Palestinians. It was a glaring omission – although when asked, Burg said he believed the window for a two-state solution had virtually shut, leaving a need to seriously discuss alternatives – and reflected the trauma the conflict has inflicted on all players. Burg painted an Israeli society afraid to debate ideas, fearful of taking risks, with the Arabs and the Messianic Jews in the West Bank and Israel proper threatening the very existence (and establishment) of a truly secular nation. "As soon as the Arabs declare peace with us," lamented Burg, "Israel will have a profound clash internally between the theocrats and democrats."

Afterwards at dinner, with The Israel Lobby co-author John Mearsheimer, historian Norman Finkelstein, blogger Phil Weiss and others, the argument was put forward that because younger American Jews are increasingly embarrassed by Israel’s occupation policies — studies bear this out, and indicate less ethnic identification (because of intermarriage and other factors) with the concept of a Jewish nation — support for Israel is declining, forcing more moderates to the fore. I’m far from convinced. Older hardliners still hold the balance of power — and were just promoted into Obama’s cabinet. Although the stranglehold of the Zionist old guard is clearly crumbling — witness the growing global public recognition of Palestinian suffering — the situation on the ground remains dire.

The Zionist lobby is still immensely powerful in Washington. Many younger Jews simply refuse to get involved in any organisations, frustrated with the myopic mindset. The West Bank occupation deepens every day. The UN even reported this week that Israel has refused to allow spices, kitchenware, glassware, yarn and paper into the Gaza Strip. None of these facts seem to disturb the Jewish leadership in America; they merely encourage Israel to tighten its noose around the territories.

Obama has major challenges to even address any of these issues yet seems determined, at this early stage, to ignore the more uncomfortable facts in front of him. With the appointment by of a hawkish national security team, including hardline Zionist Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it’s become clear that no strong anti-war voices will have the ear of the new leader. Neo-conservatism is not dead as a movement; it has merely changed its political stripes. A military strike against Iran, as just one example, remains firmly on the table. Wishful thinking will not change this brutal reality.

The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill doused optimistic expectations in The Guardian:

"Obama’s starry-eyed defenders have tried to downplay the importance of his cabinet selections, saying Obama will call the shots, but the ruling elite in this country see it for what it is. Karl Rove, ‘Bush’s Brain’, called Obama’s cabinet selections, ‘reassuring’, which itself is disconcerting, but neoconservative leader and former McCain campaign staffer Max Boot summed it up best. ‘I am gobsmacked by these appointments, most of which could just as easily have come from a President McCain,’ Boot wrote."

Israelis are reportedly pleased that Obama’s choices are unlikely to press the Jewish state for any major concessions while the Palestinians are understandably concerned.

"I was frankly surprised by this choice," Manar Shorbagy, an expert on American foreign policy who teaches at the American University in Cairo, said. "Obama’s talking about bringing diplomacy back to a US foreign policy that has been militarised under President Bush. Senator Clinton has different ideas. She voted for the Iraq war and has supported many things Bush has done in his two terms."

Maintenance of the status-quo — Israel’s settlement project expands, apartheid in the West Bank worsens and Gazans are continually strangled under collective punishment — remains the likely future. Without a serious international push towards resolution, Israel will forever increase its colonial project, making a two-state solution an utter impossibility. Ironically, the mainstream Jewish Diaspora leadership remains mute about this possibility. Inherently, they support a one-state answer, where, in a few years time, Arabs will outnumber Jews. What will they say then?

While it’s encouraging that a growing number of leading pundits are speaking publicly against Israel’s race to enforce its territorial gains, Israel suffers no real tangible price for flouting UN resolutions and breaking international law. The Holocaust is the eternal moral shroud with which the Jewish state protects itself.

What is desperately needed, as articulated by conservative International Herald Tribune columnist Roger Cohen this week, is the following:

"Imagine Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Israeli prime minister, saying this to Barack Obama:

‘The United States has been wrong to write Israel a blank check every year; wrong to turn a blind eye to the settlements in the West Bank; wrong not to be more explicit about the need to divide Jerusalem; wrong to equip us with weaponry so sophisticated we now believe military might is the answer to all our problems; and wrong in not helping us reach out to Syria. Your prospective secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said during the campaign that ‘The United States stands with Israel, now and forever.’ Well, that’s not good enough. You need to stand against us sometimes so we can avoid the curse of eternal militarism."

If only more politicians across the Western world could see that their "pro-Israel" stance is killing the state they love.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.