Why Obama's Words Are Cheap


Forget about what he actually said. Imagine if US President Barack Obama said something like this to this week’s annual conference of America’s leading Zionist lobby, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC):

"We can no longer afford to confuse supporting the state of Israel with supporting the policies of the leaders who control the Israeli government at a particular time. The interests of the two are not necessarily the same-particularly when, in my view and the view of many Israelis, those policies undermine the long-term security of Israel."

He didn’t. That was how former US 60 Minutes producer Barry Lando imagined it. No, in the year before the 2012 Presidential election, Obama played it relatively safe in his remarks. It was a speech to the Zionist faithful, though gently reminding Israel-firsters that time and history were not on the side of a nation that didn’t find peace with its neighbours.

The AIPAC speech was delivered the week after Obama’s address to the nation on the Middle East and the Arab Spring. The mainstream media hypes these presidential speeches as a way to give the impression the US is actively engaged on bringing peace to the Middle East. In reality, words are cheap and actions are what will help convince Israel that its current path is incredibly self-destructive.

Perhaps, though, we should be grateful that Obama said anything mildly critical of Israel, such is the power of the Zionist lobby in the US. The thing is, the Arab world as a whole largely doesn’t trust America to fairly speak for their rights and grievances. Since the Arab Spring began a few months ago, Arab public opinion is even more openly critical of US foreign policy. Muslims don’t forget that Washington backed countless dictators in the region for decades and that they continue to do so.

Obama’s policy speech last week on the Arab world attempted to deal the US back into the debate but it fell short. There was selective support for democratic movements but nothing about Saudi Arabia (who are currently finalising a $60 billion arms deal with the US) and little about Bahrain. Even Syria, where the Assad regime is currently imprisoning and killing countless activists, was largely ignored.

Obama’s reaffirmation of America’s belief in a two state solution along 1967 lines with agreed land swaps (code for Israel maintaining countless illegal colonies in the West Bank) is reminiscent of previous speeches by Bill Clinton and George W Bush. In his speech he didn’t specifically mention settlements nor call for their cessation. Obama made no mention of "occupation" at all.

This disregards the fact that it is a practical impossibility to establish a Palestinian state in a sea of ever-expanding Jewish homes. This lack of progress on Palestinian self-determination therefore makes another intifada likely, if not imminent. The Arab Spring is knocking on Israel’s door and never-ending occupation, on moral and demographic lines, will only further isolate the Jewish state. Stating such self-evident truths unleashes a ferocious Zionist lobby inside the US — and in the diaspora — who only believe in unqualified devotion to a foreign nation.

Obama’s public position on the Israel/Palestine conflict has been relatively consistent since he assumed office. He issues occasional comments condemning certain Israeli actions but then buckles in the face of Israeli government pressure and domestic Zionist anger. Perhaps he still believes that a wordy speech will bring peace to the region.

The US President frames the issue as one of ignoring historical wrongs — imagine a Holocaust survivor being told to just "get over it" — and refuses to discuss the legally recognised Right of Return of Palestinian refugees and how Jerusalem would be shared by all peoples.

The AIPAC speech damned the likely September vote in the United Nations. That is when the Palestinian Authority will attempt to have a Palestinian state universally accepted. Obama has already slammed the burgeoning boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and the presence of Hamas in a Palestinian unity government.

The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah rightly highlights Obama’s rhetorical desperation:

"Thus while exhorting Israel to rush toward a ‘two-state solution’ in order to save itself from the terrifying threat of Palestinian infants, Obama has given up completely on any effort to confront the main obstacle to his preferred outcome: Israel’s accelerated colonisation of the little remaining land."

The Israel/Palestine conflict remains the nexus around which other US policies are framed. Freedom for Palestine will undoubtedly improve America’s image in the world but Israel remains the only nation on earth where a sitting Prime Minister, such as Benjamin Netanyahu last week, can sit in the White House and lecture the US President about why ditching colonies in the West Bank will leave the Zionist state exposed. Netanyahu yesterday told the US Congress that the 1967 borders were indefensible and blamed Palestinians for blocking peace. His well-received speech was interrupted several times by applause from both sides of the house.

Netanyahu has never shown an interest in allowing Palestinians a contiguous state or removing the hundreds of thousands of Jewish interlopers living on Palestinian territory. Netanyahu’s speech to the AIPAC conference this week provided no road-map for Israel to end its stranglehold on Palestine. His tone deafness requires a decisive response and Gideon Levy in Haaretz fears that nothing will change on the ground where it matters: "The Palestinians yesterday were not listed among the oppressed Arab people of the Middle East who need to be liberated and aided on the way to democracy."

Although there are signs that some in the American corporate media are starting to recognise the deleterious effects of ongoing Israeli occupation (including New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, recently using the word "apartheid"), nothing is being done to address these realities. No discussion about cutting the billions of dollars in aid to Israel, no thought about punishing a serial human rights abuser and no mechanism to stop US citizens giving money to illegal colonies in the West Bank. A Wall Street Journal columnist can still brazenly accuse Obama of being an "anti-Israel President".

Obama may well realise that his foreign policy is hobbled by an inability to speak honestly about the Middle East. But US Presidents are ultimately judged by actions, not words. The result of no political advancement on the moribund "peace process" is an official recognition that the two-state solution is dead. That day is not far away.

And then what? A bi-national state is the likely outcome. Power sharing between Israelis and Palestinians, a system akin to most other democratic nations on earth, would ensure equal rights for all its citizens, not racial exclusivity for a soon-to-be Jewish minority.

Dissident Israeli Neve Gordon sees the time approaching very soon:

"The notion of power sharing would entail the preservation of the existing borders, from the Jordan valley to the Mediterranean Sea, and an agreed upon form of a power sharing government led by Israeli Jews and Palestinians, and based on the liberal democracy model of the separation of powers. It also entails a parity of esteem – namely, the idea that each side respects the other side’s identity and ethos, including language, culture and religion. This, to put it simply, is the bi-national one-state solution."

Ultimately, Obama’s recent speeches on the Arab world were partially eloquent but their ultimate audience was the American domestic market. Fine words can’t mask a distinct lack of creative ways to end the Israel/Palestine conflict. It’s no wonder that civil society is growing in global strength, including pursuing BDS, when the political elites are failing to put pressure on an occupying power.

The pro-occupation Israel Lobby lives on.


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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.