Israel, Gaza and Obama

Photograph Source: Pete Souza – Public Domain

President-elect Obama is getting whacked by the left for declining comment on Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, but his prudent silence is just as discomfiting to the Israeli government and its allies here, in the United States. They wanted a ringing endorsement of their onslaught. There were also hints in their demeanor on television that Obama’s senior aides like David Axelrod were not overly delighted with Israel’s state propagandists for headlining Obama’s remarks on a visit to Israel in the summer that “If somebody shot rockets at my house where my two daughters were sleeping at night, I’d do everything in my power to stop them.”

On the campaign trail and, indeed, since he reached the U.S. Senate in 2005,  no politician was more sedulous that Barack Obama in ensuring that the Israel lobby here had no cause for disquiet. On arrival in Washington, he instantly selected Joe Lieberman, known informally as the senator from Israel, as his mentor. At the annual conference this last summer of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Obama drew criticism from across a broad political spectrum for his groveling.

“Israel should get whatever it wants and an undivided Jerusalem should be its capital,” Obama assured the American Jewish delegates, many of them influential Democrats from across the U.S. The next day, one of his foreign policy advisors hastily issued a clarification to the effect that Obama believes “Jerusalem is a final status issue, which means it has to be negotiated between the two parties” as part of “an agreement that they both can live with.” The aide refused to rule out such possibilities as Jerusalem also serving as the capital of a Palestinian state or Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods.

So, is there any evidence that when he sits down in the Oval Office, Obama will try to set a new course?

It’s certainly true that the minute the new Obama administration made any move, however tentative, deemed “anti-Israel” by the massed legions of the Israel lobby – stretching from Vice President Biden’s office, through Obama’s own Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to about 98 percent of the U.S. Congress, the major newspapers and TV networks, the think tanks in Washington, the big Democratic Party funders – political mayhem would break loose. The White House would see its prime political enterprise, the economic recovery program, immediately held hostage.

It’s also true that both Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have in the past evinced sympathy for Palestinian aspirations: the former was photographed with his wife Michelle in what was obviously an amicable meeting with the late Edward Said, America’s best-known Palestinian, and Hillary Clinton publicly embraced Yasir Arafat. It seems safe to say that, unlike Bush Jr., neither Obama nor Mrs. Clinton have any rootedly ideological or religious commitment to the Zionist cause. Political self-preservation and advancement form the leaven in their loyalty to Israel and will remain predominant.

But if the power of the Israel lobby, here in the U.S.A., is as obstructive as ever to the formation of any equitable U.S. policy to address Palestinian aspirations the international situation does offer opportunity. Although ruthless and horrifying Israel’s onslaughts on Gaza are evidently an expression of weakness, in a quest for military credibility forced by the imminence of elections in Israel, just as Shimon Peres, in similarly dire straits, launched Operation “Grapes of Wrath” against Lebanon before an election (which his party lost) in 1996. Bombardment, as always, unites the population on the receiving end and rallies it around its political leaders, assuming they don’t run away.

In the end, Israel will stop the bombing and what will it achieve beyond another exhibition of futile strategy, like the attack on Lebanon in 2006? The last time Israel had an effective military campaign that could be called a victory was 27 years ago, in the 1982 attack on Lebanon. Hamas has been greatly strengthened by the current attack and the status of President Abbas reaffirmed as a spineless collaborator with Israel; Mubarak likewise; Syria and Turkey alienated from Western designs; Hezbollah and Iran vindicated by the world condemnation of Israel’s barbarous conduct. For months Israel besieged Gaza, starving its civilian inhabitants of essential supplies with no effective international reproach. It’s hard to take dramatic photographs of an empty medicine bottle, but easy to film a bombed-out girl’s dorm or a Palestinian mother weeping over the bodies of her five dead daughters, featured on the front page of the Washington Post this week.

Israel’s current crop of leaders are second-raters, and conditions ripe for a forceful push from the U.S., assuming that the new administration has the requisite modicum of courage and ingenuity – a very, very long bet, as bitter experience for nearly forty years instructs us.

In the dying moments of his administration, Bill Clinton nearly brokered a deal between the Barak government and Arafat. Hilary Clinton certainly knows that the story of Arafat walking away from “the best possible deal” is a myth fostered by Israel and that it was Barak, facing elections who collapsed the deal at the Taba summit. Everybody knows what the contours of a settlement should be. Olmert, on his way out, put it flatly in his famous October interview in Yediot Aharonot:  “We must reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the essence of which is that we shall actually withdraw from almost all the territories, if not from all the territories … Anyone who wants to keep all the territory of [Jerusalem] will have to put 270,000 Arabs behind fences within sovereign Israel. That won’t work.”

In that same interview, Olmert said of his previous 30 years as a politician, apropos the Palestinian question, “I was not ready to look into all the depths of reality.” Will  Obama and HRC confront reality? America’s changing and weakening circumstances prompt them to do so. If Obama wants to be judged as anything more than a partisan of the Israel lobby, he will have to make the attempt. That said, no one who has followed US policy in the Middle East with any attention since the Six Day War in 1967  should discard profound pessimism as the anchor for all assessments.

This originally appeared in the January 2, 2009 edition of CounterPunch.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.