Obama’s Israel Albatross

Obama came into office vowing to resolve the Palestine question. He also vowed to approach the ME with civility and diplomacy, especially Iran, to iron out issues of mutual concern.  The two-pronged plan was aimed at removing the Palestine question from the regional agenda, clearing the deck for improved relations with area states and resolution of existing US/ME issues. The February Israeli election yielded Netanyahu as Prime Minister presiding over an ultra right wing government.  Netanyahu rejected Obama’s call for establishing a Palestinian state.  He argued that Iran’s nuclear program with its assumed threat to Israel and to US interests was the primary issue to address, not Palestine.  With the June election of anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, Holocaust denier Ahmedinejad, Netanyahu claimed that the danger Iran represents increased precipitously, and aggressive action was required. Therefore, Palestine should be put on the back burner. Public dissonance between the U.S. and Israel over Obama’s Palestine and Iran agenda amplified after Iran’s presidential election.  The dissonance threatens Obama’s efforts to defuse ME volatility.

President Obama entered office with a promise of business not as usual.  Although American foreign policy objectives were not changed, Obama insisted on the priority of dialogue and diplomacy to realize them, Afghanistan (and Pakistan) notwithstanding. Obama articulated two immediate goals he sought in the Middle East:  1) to resolve the Palestinian/Israeli conflict in accordance with the international consensus for a two-state solution without significantly alienating Israel.  Israel is still considered important – wrongly as Mearsheimer and Walt  (“The Israel Lobby,” LRB, 23 March 2006) would have it – to securing American economic interests and political hegemony in that region.  As such, the US must guarantee key Israeli ME interests including area dominance.  And 2) to dissolve, or at least checkmate the only regional alliance challenging US/Israeli designs in the ME,  i.e., the alliance of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and political elements in Iraq.  Moving to resolve the Palestine question is seen by Obama as contributing to deflating the Iranian-led anti-US/Israel alliance by removing it as its cause célèbre, and thus making key alliance members amenable to American outreach. The thinking is that achieving these two interdependent goals would allow less hindered US maneuverability in taming Islamist movements in the region and prevailing in the energy grand game there.

To address the first goal, former Senator George Mitchell was appointed as special envoy to bring the sides together to resolve the conflict.  Mitchell was also charged with facilitating a comprehensive peace in the area that includes Lebanon and Syria’s issues with Israel. The second goal required other related and simultaneous initiatives: a) ensuring the parliamentary election of the pro-American March 14 coalition in Lebanon over the pro-Iranian/Syrian Hezbollah allied with General Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement party; b) re-engaging Syria by announcing the return of a US Ambassador to Damascus, opening up the possibility of serious negotiations regarding the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan, and removing piecemeal some of the US sanctions imposed by the Bush Administration; c) encouraging through media coverage the election of presumed reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi as President of Iran; and d) drawing on “experts” in unofficial organizations such as the Beirut Forum co-directed by former M 16 operative, Alastair Crooke, (Claude Kandiyoti, “The Boomerang Effect, Haaretz, July 17, 2009) who dialogue with national Islamist movements, i.e., Hezbollah and Hamas, with hopes of guiding them to “positive” relations with the West.  If all these initiatives were to succeed, the expected result would be weakened and less hostile regional actors intent on obstructing American interests and the “normalization” of a dominant Israel into the Middle East.  What is the record to date?

Resolving the Palestine Question

Immediately after Obama’s inauguration Senator Mitchell went to the Middle East for his first round assessment of the Palestine and area issues. In spite of Netanyahu’s return as Prime Minister after the February 2009 Knesset elections Mitchell continues his relatively unpublicized efforts to negotiate a two-state solution and open preliminary discussions with Lebanon and Syria.  While Netanyahu is bluntly uncooperative, his Palestine policy is not basically different from that of other Israeli party leaders.  His rhetoric however is far right conservative.  In any case, considering the fragmentation and diminution of Palestinian land through Israeli confiscation, the probability of achieving a Palestinian state seems to be nil.

Obama’s ability and willingness to employ substantial pressure on Israel to comply with the international consensus could possibly change the outcome.  However, Israel’s counter-pressure leverage through its American Lobby and perceived role in the Middle East is significant (Alexander Cockburn, “The Biden and Clinton Mutinies,” Counterpunch, July 31-August 2).  To date, Obama has not openly challenged that leverage.  Although Netanyahu did order a “freeze” in the construction of some 900 units in the East Jerusalem settlement of Pisgat Zeev, it was more symbolic than a gauge of cooperation to come (Toufic Haddad, “Sticks and Carrots: Israel’s ‘Settlement Freeze’”, Faster Times, August 2, 2009). It is not at all clear that Obama could in fact garner the needed Congressional support to challenge Israel’s seeming armlock on US ME policy.

Checkmating the Iranian-led Alliance: Hezbollah and Lebanon

In Lebanon, Secretary of State Clinton, Vice President Biden and Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, Jeffrey Feltman as well as the President’s Cairo speech made it abundantly clear the US wanted the pro-American March 14 coalition to win the June parliamentary election, and it did.  Nonetheless, the Hezbollah/FPM made a strong showing. And recently, Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, dropped out of the March 14 coalition.  He has again warmed to Hizbollah and Syria.  As a result, the three Druze ministers in the upcoming Hariri cabinet and some nine parliamentarians from his bloc may join the opposition. In that case, the opposing March 8 alliance would be the majority in Parliament. (Sami Moubayed, “U-turn puts Hezbollah in the driving [sic] seat,” Asia Times, August 5, 2009).   Therefore, Hezbollah remains strong in the Lebanese equation and in the Iranian-led alliance. It also has official Lebanese backing regarding the remaining Israeli-occupied area of Shebaa Farms.

Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas

After visits by US officials to Damascus, the Obama Administration announced it was reassigning an Ambassador to Syria.  More recently, the Obama Administration began lifting specific sanctions.  Syria has made it clear that it is interested in warmer relations with the US and hopes for help in regaining the Golan from Israel.  While it understands there is a US/Israeli quid-pro-quo involved, i.e., breaking off all ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, it does not appear likely that Syria would go that far (Marwan Al Kabalan, “Syria’s cautious approach,” Gulf News, July 30, 2009).  How far Syria would go to be in US favor and to see the Golan restored to Syria is not known, but it is not inclined to emulate Egypt.  Syria has made it clear on a number of occasions that it will not give up its insurance/leverage alliances simply for a slot in the American/Israeli orbit.  And Israeli officials have made it clear in any case that they will not give up the Golan.  To date, Syria has not conceded anything to the US that would weaken the alliance.

Iran and Western Media.

Officially, the publicly anti-US, anti-Zionist, Holocaust denier Ahmedinejad, endorsed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, was re-elected President of Iran over the alleged reformer, Mir Hossein Mousavi, favored by the U.S., and Iranian exiles.  He was also presumed to be the candidate of Iran’s privileged middle class although several scholars have challenged this.  Mousavi supporters cried fraudulent elections and took to the streets to demonstrate for a vote recount.  Khamenei and Ahmedinejad supporters cried foreign meddling in the instigation of public demonstrations. Media coverage was conducted primarily through twitter, facebook and cell phone cameras favoring the anti-Ahmedinejad demonstrators. Dept of State Senior Retired Foreign Officer, Terry Arnold, notes how difficult it is to evaluate the extent, source and impact of cyber interference in Iran that could “… incite a Chinese scale of Net paranoia in Iran.” He further notes that “[Scott] Ritter refers to such cyber activity as Obama’s ‘digital democracy gambit” (Terry Arnold, “The Modern Tools of Meddling,” online at Rense.com, July 22, 2009).

It was clear from media coverage that the US wanted Mousavi to win, believing without real foundation he would be more amenable to discussions on all regional issues including Iran’s nuclear program.  Israel, on the other hand wanted the hated Ahmedinejad to win so as to deflect attention away from Obama’s attempt to resolve the Palestinian question, and to fortify Israel’s claim that Iran is the greatest threat to US/Israel objectives in the region.  Israel prefers to reduce Iran by military means and to destroy any nuclear/military capability it could develop.  The Israeli end goals are to eliminate Iran as a competitive power player in the ME and to thereby isolate and defang Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and pro-Iranian Shi’a elements in Iraq.  The US shares the same goals, but the tone, style and means for achieving them differ greatly at present.  The US wants to separate countries in the Iran-led alliance via the Palestinian door using dialogue and diplomacy.  Israel wants to shatter that alliance through military might without going through the Palestinian door.   This is why it was essential for Israel that the demonized Ahmedinejad win the presidential election.  The win would make Israel’s case for military action against Iran and pressure the US to support that action.  In Israeli thinking, it would also put Palestine on the back-burner – forever if possible.

Although the question of who actually won the Iranian election is unresolved, it remains problematic for progressives and has split their ranks.  On the one hand, you have the internationally respected Arab public intellectual, Azmi Bishara who, while criticizing Ahmedinejad on his holocaust denial, tends to support Ahmedinejad’s claim of re-election and expresses admiration for his critique of Western colonialism and racism (Azmi Bishara, “An Alternative Reading,” Al Ahram, 25 June-1 July 2009, and Scott Ritter, “Learning to Live With the Devil We Know,” Truthdig, June 16, 2009).  On the other hand, Juan Cole believes that Mousavi most likely won, noting that the issue was culture wars not class (Juan Cole, “Class vs. Culture Wars in Iran Election,” Informed Comment, Sunday, June 14, 2009).  Hamid Dabashi has a different take.  He does not address the issue of who won the election but simply states that it has now become a perceived “social fact” that the election was rigged.  He believes that what is going on in Iran is an authentic civil rights movement by a broad class spectrum and women’s groups, not simply the so-called middle class, some of whom are considered monarchy admirers (Hamid Dabishi, “Left is Wrong on Iran,” Al Ahram, 15-22 July 2009).  He further believes that President Obama has been “pitch perfect”, i.e., discreet, in responding to the Iranian elections and subsequent demonstrations (in an Al-Jazeera panel program, Empire, July 2009).  Obama did not weigh in on who won the election.  He kept the door open to dialogue with Ahmedinejad or Mousavi, should he prevail, while expressing disconcertion about the way demonstrators were/are treated.  Nonetheless, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad insist that there was Western meddling, especially cyber interference, in Iran stimulating public protest.  American and various international progressive intellectuals insisted Ahmedinejad was elected and that the US was indeed meddling in Iran on behalf of Mousavi. They based their accusation on a long history of U.S. interference in Iran.

The 1953 American-engineered overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 and return of the Shah to the throne are well known.  However, since the 1979 Khomeini revolution, there have been many attempts to undermine Iran’s Shia Theocracy.  What evolved over these years was an Israeli/Zionist factor added to the equation.  From its outset, Israel had identified three Arab nationalist countries which it saw as potential threats to Israeli colonization of Palestine and its ascent to regional political and economic hegemony.  These were Egypt, Iraq and Syria.  After the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, Israel added non-Arab Iran to its list of hostile challengers to its legitimacy and dominance in the area.  Egypt was smashed in the 1967 war and ultimately signed a peace agreement with Israel more than a decade later.  In March 2003 the US, with cheerleader prompting from Israel and its US supporters, invaded and subsequently destroyed Iraq physically.  Today Iraq is politically unstable and vulnerable to Iranian influence and regional interests. Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki has developed important relations with Iran.  Syria does not carry the political and military weight that Egypt and Iraq once did.  However, it still plays a pivotal role in the ME deriving its leverage from its alliance with Iran and the associated non-state Islamist movements of Hezbollah and Hamas.  Syria replaced its defunct (1991) USSR patron with Iran as the only regional anti-US/Israeli force in the region – the October 1980 surprise notwithstanding (Don Hopkins, “The October Surprise:  The Iranian Hostage Rescue Mission and the 1980 Presidential Election,” www.donhopkins.com, December 1998).  The rise of Iran was seen by Israel as a major threat, not to its existence though it claims that, but to its dominance in the region and its claims of legitimacy.  Hence, although Israel saw Egypt and Iraq ostensibly removed from the “battlefield”, the rise of Iran allied to Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and pro-Iranian elements in Iraq replaced the earlier Arab Nationalist challenge.

Consequently, AIPAC, American Enterprise Institute, Hudson Institute, Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, Americans for Victory over Terrorism, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Foundation for the Defense of Democracy and other pro-Israel institutes and organizations went into action.  They rallied behind Reza Pahlavi, the Shah’s son living in Virginia, and worked with members of Congress to initiate anti-Iran legislation.  Two of the most prominent Senators in the forefront of this effort were/are Sam Brownback (Kansas) and Joe Lieberman (Connecticut).  They supported congressional funding for the Voice of America and Radio Farda which beamed programs in Farsi from Iranian exiles in California to Iran.  Their goal was/is regime change in Iran.  The Bush Administration put in play a number of programs to destabilize Iran and hence undermine the Iranian Regime in hopes of regime change (Seymour M. Hersh, “Preparing the Battlefield: The Bush Administration steps up its secret moves against Iran,” The New Yorker, July 7, 2008).

Israel and its American lobbyists insisted that Iran was a threat not only to Israel and the ME, but to the world because of its alleged nuclear program aimed a developing an arsenal of nuclear bombs.  Clearly Iran has a nuclear energy program, and it may seek to have bomb-making capacity as deterrence to a possible attack from Israel and the US.  All reports seem to indicate that it does not now have nor will it have in the near future a nuclear bomb arsenal.  Israel is the only state in the region with nuclear warheads.  However, with the election of Ahmedinejad in 2005 and his reckless rhetoric feeding into Israeli portrayals of an “Islamofascist” Iran bent on destroying Israel, Israel gained in the public relations war for world opinion, especially American opinion.  Bush elaborated the demonization of Iran and its President, Ahmedinejad, by including the country in his “Axis of Evil” grouping along with North Korea and Iraq.  The announced re-election of Ahmedinejad added fodder to Israel’s argument.

Aside from possible cyber-interference, did the US meddle there as a number of Western and other progressives would have it?  Did the Obama Administration authorize those American agents already in Iran from the Bush era to encourage dissent? The following excerpt from Jeremy Hammond’s June 23 article implies that the Obama Administration did and is still meddling (Jeremy Hammond, “Has the U.S. Played a Role in Fomenting Unrest During Iran’s Election?, Foreign Policy Journal, June 23, 2009, www.foreignpolicyjournal.com):

One might be tempted to argue that the strategy for regime change implemented under the Bush administration that including funding for propaganda, support for Iranian dissident groups, and backing for anti-regime militants and terrorists has changed under the new administration of President Barack Obama. There is no evidence, many have pointed out, of U.S. meddling in the Iranian election.

But then, neither is there any clear indication that Obama ever revoked the policy strategy implemented under Bush. The most likely scenario is that Obama has put the military option favored by some in the Bush administration on the back burner in favor of other means to carry out a change of regime in Iran.

Whatever the case may be, given the record of U.S. interference in the state affairs of Iran and clear policy of regime change, it certainly seems possible, even likely, that the U.S. had a significant role to play in helping to bring about the recent turmoil in an effort to undermine the government of the Islamic Republic.

Considering the direct and open American intrusion in the Lebanese elections aimed at blocking the pro-Iranian/Syrian Hezbollah and Free Patriotic Movement coalition electoral success, is it plausible to accept Obama’s assertion of non – US interference in Iran?   Considering further the US concern about Ahmedinejad and Venezuela President Chavez’s friendship and influence in their respective regions especially regarding oil policy and possible conversion from petro-Dollars to Euros, is it conceivable that an American President would remain relatively inert regarding events in Iran?  Most Western progressives say no.  Others, like Dabishi insist that something new is happening in Iran.  Whatever interferences may or may not have occurred and whatever those Iranians clinging to the days of the Shah want, for Dabashi there is a deep-seated anger and frustration with Ahmedinejad and the authoritarian Theocracy among a broad spectrum of Iranian society.  Dabashi does not seem to enthusiastically endorse Mousavi as the answer, but Mousavi is seen as the symbol of opposition and reform.  In a post-election panel discussion at Columbia University, Dabashi wore a green neck scarf, the symbolic color of the pro-Mousavi demonstrators.

Dabashi’s analysis, given his roots and experience, makes sense. He has challenged the politically correct leftist paradigm of favoring the most overtly and vocal anti-imperialist party as the victim of the West.  Clearly, he dislikes Ahmedinejad’s chicanery intensely. This is not to say that there was no outside meddling beyond cyber-interference in what happened and is happening in Iran, nor is it to say that Ahmedinejad was or was not elected.  We may not know definitively for years to come.  And there is no reason to believe that a majority of the demonstrators are not equally anti-US/Israeli objectives in the area. Their difference may be that they also insist on personal freedoms in whatever system they accept for Iran including a reformed Theocracy.   In that particular sense, it really doesn’t matter who was elected.  The election became a trigger for Iranians to once again express their discontent and seek something better.   However, what is important about the election is its ultimate consequence domestically, regionally and internationally.  None of the critics on either side attempts to draw out what some of those consequences might be.

It is important to remember that reformer President Khatami sent a proposal of peace and compromise on ME issues to the Bush Administration in May 2003 that was simply ignored by Bush.  President Ahmedinejad sent a letter to Bush in May 2006 in which he pointed out American moral hypocrisy related to criticizing other countries about democracy while practicing unwarranted war and illegal treatment of detainees in the war on terror.  But while critical, his letter could be read as an opening for contact and discussion with the US.  In both cases, Iranian approaches to the US were rejected.  If Ahmedinejad remains President of Iran, Obama would have to seek talks with him and expect some convoluted interactions.  If at some point a reformer becomes President, It does not mean that he/she would be less harsh on the US and its Israeli ally.  The worse outcome of the present turmoil in Iran would be competition among its many ethnic groups and a struggle for power.  Constant turmoil in Iran would please Israel and threaten Iran’s domestic stability and regional outreach.  Obama has his work cut out for him to work respectfully with whoever emerges as leader and to contain potential chaos and violence.  The timeline of September to agree to talks and December to show progress which Obama has set for Iran almost as a concession to Israel, may not be sufficiently flexible given the present circumstances in Iran.

What is clear is that the 2009 elections brought a different approach to US foreign policy, a verbally fanatic right-winger to head Israel, and political turbulence to Iran, resulting in an atypical public dissonance between Israel and the US, Eisenhower, Carter, Bush Senior notwithstanding.  The Obama approach has not had a chance to play out, but the Israeli militaristic approach has put it on a short leash.  To date, the Palestine door through which Obama sought light has not opened. The Iranian-led alliance is still intact and has made no real concessions.

Although Israel has an “unshakeable” alliance with the US, a strong alliance with Turkey, peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and the fourth strongest and technologically advanced military in the world, it still feels insecure.  Its insecurity stems from two factors: 1) as a colonial settler state founded on ethnic cleansing, its leaders know its legitimacy is questioned; and 2) in order to maintain its statehood in the face of challenges to its legitimacy, Israeli leaders have striven to make Israel exclusively indispensible (one way or another) to the US, its major guarantor.  Hence Israeli leaders fear Obama may try to return to some semblance of the Eisenhower period of alliances with a variety of Arab states to which the non-Arab state of Iran could be added.  In such a scenario, Israel’s place and importance in the American strategic orbit would be lessened as would be its influence as well.  Obama’s openness to regional states considered by Israel as hostile intensifies their efforts to prevent his success.  The dissonance in US/Israeli relations will test Obama’s mettle as he seeks to effect American interests in a less militaristic fashion.  Will Israel be his Albatross, or will he be able to aggregate sufficient support to achieve his goals?

ELAINE C. HAGOPIAN is Professor Emerita of Sociology, Simmons College, Boston