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Obama’s weasel words

March 25, 2013

FOR those still hopeful for American support for an equitable solution to the Palestinian problem, Obama’s visit to the region would have been a big disappointment. At a press conference in Ramallah, he was shifty and evasive when asked about the continuing construction activity in the occupied West Bank.

Terming them ‘counter-productive’ and ‘an irritant’, he seemed to suggest that this rapid colonisation of conquered territory was a minor matter that could be discussed at peace talks, if and when they happened. He further implied that there was some kind of moral equivalence between the settlements and the occasional rockets fired into Israel from Gaza. It took the Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas to remind his guest that these settlements had been declared illegal in no fewer that 13 UN Security Council resolutions.

By contrast, Obama oozed charm when he met the right-wing Israeli prime minister at the elaborate welcome ceremony laid for the American president in Jerusalem. In his speech, he said everything Israelis wanted to hear: America was their eternal ally, and would do everything to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.

All this is a far cry from Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo in which he demanded a halt to settlement activity, and called for a viable Palestinian state. Since then, Israel has grabbed more territory, and is now set to begin construction in an area near Jerusalem where the new illegal housing would block access between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This would, in effect, cut off the hoped-for state from its planned capital. While most of the world has condemned this move, Obama has limited his criticism to saying that the Israeli plan is ‘not helpful’.

To understand the reason behind Obama’s craven surrender to Israeli wishes, one only has to see the recent Pew Institute survey that shows 64% of all Americans to be supportive of Israel. For Republicans, this number is even higher.

To his credit, Obama has tried to extricate the US from the disastrous wars he inherited from Bush. He has resisted the bellicose demands to attack Iran coming from Tel Aviv as well as from America hawks. And thus far, he has kept America from getting too heavily involved in Syria.

All this points to a basically domestic agenda. Faced with a battered economy and a huge public debt, Obama needs at least some Republicans to support him in his battle to push his budget through as the opposition controls the House of Representatives. He cannot therefore afford to be tough on Netanyahu without alienating Israel’s many hard-line supporters on Capitol Hill. Thus, the fate of Palestine is hostage to domestic American politics.

Nothing new there. But what has changed is the decreasing dependence of America on oil from the Middle East. Previously, this factor would enter Washington’s calculations when it considered its policy in the region. But now, with Obama’s ‘pivot to the East’ and the growing exploitation of shale oil and gas, Obama no longer has to appease the Arab world.

The uncertainty caused by the Arab Spring is another reason why many Americans support the status quo which, in this case, means open-ended support for Israel and its continued colonisation of Palestinian land. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is now in charge in Egypt, President Morsi is heavily dependent on US military and economic aid that amounts to over two billion dollars a year. The army would strongly resist a change in policy towards Israel that might deprive it of all the weapons and spare parts it gets from the Pentagon.

Syria is in turmoil, and it will probably be a long time before it is a serious player. Iran is seeing its principal ally, Bashar al Assad, becoming weaker by the day. Squeezed by debilitating sanctions, Tehran‘s position in the region has been severely weakened. Ahmadinejad’s bluster aside, Iran poses little threat to Israel. Hamas, its proxy in Gaza, has proved incapable of overcoming its dogmatic mindset, thus preventing a united front with Fatah. This infighting has done more to discredit the Palestinian cause than anything else.

But at the end of the day, we need to recognise that Israel is just not interested in peace: what it wants is the territory it seized back in 1967, and a subdued Palestinian people. The whole notion of a ‘land-for-peace’ formula is a fantasy. Over the last 46 years, Israel has seen that there are no sanctions for virtually annexing the land it captured in the 1967 war. Despite UN condemnation and pro forma criticism about the harshness of the occupation, the world has done nothing to change the situation.

While blaming the US, we forget how complicit the Muslim world has been. That Israel would want to hold on to Palestine is understandable from its perspective; for the Americans to support them for their domestic and regional policies also makes sense when viewed through the eyes of American politicians. But what’s our excuse?

Muslim nations have been vocal in their support for the Palestinian cause, but that’s where it starts and finishes. Occasionally, the Saudis and their oil-rich neighbours dole out some cash. None of them have used their diplomatic and economic leverage to push Washington to lean on Tel Aviv. On the contrary, Egypt has helped Israel in making Gaza a prison.

So when Obama pays more attention to his own domestic constituency than to the demands for a just solution to the Palestinian issue, should we blame him? Politicians, in spite of their lofty rhetoric, care more about elections and polling numbers than about abstract appeals for justice. Obama is no different, even though we were initially dazzled by his eloquence and his apparent idealism. But it’s still disappointing to discover that he’s just another politician after all.