The US elections and pandering to Israel
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
So much for charges from conservative contenders for the 2012 U.S. presidential elections that Barack Obama is not pro-Israel enough — the president just won seals of approval from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and the U.S. lobby that usually reflects their views.
If the elections, as some predict, will include a contest on who loves Israel most, Obama can use their praise to good effect. How much it will contribute to his legacy is another matter.
The plaudits came in response to Obama’s address to the United Nations on Sept. 21, when he rejected the Palestinians’ bid for U.N. membership in what one Israeli journalist, Chemi Shalev of the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, described as “probably the warmest pro-Israel speech ever given at an annual U.N. General Assembly meeting by any U.S. president, bar none.”
Its tone differed sharply from his moving description of the plight of the Palestinians in a speech in Cairo in 2009, five months after taking office. For 60 years, he said, they had endured the pain of dislocation and “the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. Let there be no doubt,” he said, “the situation of the Palestinians is intolerable.”
The Cairo speech raised expectations in the Arab world that here was a president who sympathized with the Palestinians and had the power, global prestige and commitment to succeed where a long line of his predecessors had tried and failed – help create a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel. It didn’t work that way.
Fast forward to Sept. 21, 2011. No word about daily humiliations, dislocation, occupation, intolerable conditions. Instead, the emphasis was on centuries of persecution of Jews, anti-Semitic Arab school books, Israelis killed by Palestinian rockets and suicide bombs. As Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute put it, “He recited a litany of suffering of Israelis with nothing about Palestinian hardships in a conflict whose most recent flare-up in 2008-09 left over 1,300 Palestinian victims and 13 Israelis.”
Netanyahu saw it differently. Obama had won a “badge of honor” with his address. Lieberman, a driving force behind the relentless construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, praised Obama for not mentioning that negotiations on a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be based on the 1967 borders.
The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) issued a statement expressing its appreciation for Obama’s rejection of the Palestinian U.N. bid and his insistence on the return to negotiations. Off and on, they have dragged on for two decades, during which Israel has tripled the number of Jewish settlements on land that is supposed to become a Palestinian state.
POLITICS TRUMP POLICY
What explains Obama’s transition from Cairo 2009 to New York 2011? In Washington, politics trump policy and Israel has been more of a domestic than a foreign policy issue even before the foundation of the Jewish state in 1948. When President Harry Truman and his top advisers discussed plans for the partition of Palestine in 1945, the experts warned against it. Truman is said to have responded: “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I don’t have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”
Sixty-six years later, that kind of calculation still plays a role but in the case of Obama, there has been an additional element – a battle of will with the Israeli prime minister in which the leader of the world’s remaining superpower backed down repeatedly, on issues from a demand for a settlement freeze to the territorial lines on which negotiations should be based. The score so far: Netanyahu 3, Obama 0.
Which makes it rather bizarre that the two front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination, Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, are portraying Obama as favoring the Palestinians at the expense of Israel. In language that highlighted both ignorance and the toxic nature of American politics, Perry said Obama had pursued a policy of “appeasement” of the Palestinians.
The term dates back to the 1930s when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made concessions to Adolf Hitler to avoid going to war against Nazi Germany. In slightly less over-the-top terms, Romney talked of Obama’s efforts to “throw Israel under the bus.”
Whether Perry, Romney and other prominent Republicans manage to turn support for Israel into a wedge issue in 2012 is open to doubt in a race almost certainly dominated by jobs and the economy. But if it does emerge as a campaign topic, Obama can always wave the “badge of honor” awarded him by Netanyahu, to show that he is no different from a long line of American presidents much closer to Israel than to the Palestinians.