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Obama in Israel: A Fine Speech, an Unfortunate Change & Not Much Hope


President Obama said a lot of the things that need to be said in his address to Israeli students last week. For that he is due credit. His description of the cause and aspirations of the Palestinian people was on target. The problem is that the overall effect of his latest trip to the Middle East represented a step backwards.

Philip Stephens, the chief political commentator for the Financial Times, summed it up pretty well I think: "Barack Obama gives a fine speech," he wrote. "He did it again in Jerusalem. Few can match the US president in wrapping intelligent understanding in the pentameters of poetry. That's why the vaulting rhetoric so often begets disappointment. The words become a substitute for, instead of a prelude to, action."

I don't watch, or listen to, the President talk these days. I've been taken in – even moved – by his oratorical skills one too many times. I read the text the next day and try to figure out what is really being said.

"Leaders divide between those who respect the established parameters of power and politics and those who break out of them," wrote Stephens March 24. "Mr. Obama has so far fitted the first category. For all his eloquence, this week's trip has shown the limits of US ambition. The Middle East is burning. The president has concluded there is nothing much to be done."

"His officials say this is unfair. The effort to repair relations with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and to reassure Israelis of America's unbending commitment to their security was vital groundwork in the effort to restore peace talks with the Palestinians," continued Stephens. "The task will now be picked up by John Kerry, a secretary of state, eager to navigate the minefield of Middle East diplomacy. That's all very well, but Mr. Kerry's good intentions are worthless if the president is not ready to take risks."

"This was a memorable speech: Obama said things that Israelis need to hear from a US president," Michael Cohen wrote in British daily Guardian last week. "But nothing that happened on Thursday in Jerusalem will do much to make a two-state solution more likely to be realized. More than ever, both Israelis and Palestinians need not words, but actions from a US president. It remains to be seen whether those will be forthcoming."

"Obama posed the kinds of questions that are hardly asked aloud any more in the Israeli mainstream, swamped as it is in a steady stream of jingoistic, rightwing rhetoric, associated as it has become with people who are portrayed as loony liberals and self-hating leftists," commented Chemi Shalev, a US correspondent for Haaretz and former Jerusalem correspondent for the New York-based Jewish weekly, The Forward. "He confronted the conventional wisdom that time is on our side and the status quo is working in our favor. He asked, blasphemy indeed, that Israelis try and look at the world through Palestinian eyes. He conducted, how ironic, the kind of values-based peace campaign which so-called centre-left parties were so afraid of in the recent election campaign, because they thought it was toxic."

President Obama said a lot of the things that need to be said in his address to Israeli students last week. For that he is due credit. His description of the cause and aspirations of the Palestinian people was on target. The problem is that the overall effect of his latest trip to the Middle East represented a step backwards.

"Obama returns to the US today and to its problems, domestic and external,' wrote Nahum Barnea in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. "He leaves us with a wonderful speech and with the same impasse that existed before his arrival."

Contrary to the impression carried by most of the major media of this country, the Israelis were hardly unanimous in their appreciation of the U.S. President's remarks, certainly not the members of Prime Minister Netanyahu's government.

While, Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, of the Hatnua party called Obama's remarks "important and inspiring," Knesset member, Miri Regev, of Netanyahu's Likud party called Obama's speech "offensive to Netanyahu." "I thought Obama arrived with a greater understanding of the diplomatic process between us and the Palestinians, but I see that he hasn't changed his stances, not about settlement construction and not about two states for two nations, and decided that the young people must influence their leaders to put public pressure on the government so it will implement [Obama's] agenda," she said.

Another Likud representative in the parliament, Moshe Feiglin, said Obama' speech contained "a lot of filth."

Economy and Trade Minister, Naftali Bennett, objected to Obama's criticizing the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and his advocating for Palestinian statehood. "A Palestinian state is not the right way," he said. "The time has come for new ideas and creativity to solve the Middle East conflict."

"Anyway, a nation does not occupy its own land," Bennett added.

 

Bennett will be in the New York next month at the rightwing Jerusalem Post's annual conference, sharing billing with another occupation denier, Caroline Glick, the paper's deputy managing editor and former assistant foreign policy advisor to Netanyahu, and U.S. hawk of hawks, former UN Ambassador John Bolton, where they will discuss "Two states for two people?")

Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home Party commented: "At the end of the day we would have to absorb the tragic and destructive results of the formation of a Palestinian state. That is why the nation chose a government that does not include support for a two-state solution in its guidelines, and the U.S. president, for whom democracy in a guiding principle, must respect that."

Settlement building "will continue in accordance with what the government's policy has been thus far," Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a settler and member of the Home Party, told a television audience on the eve of Obama's arrival. He said construction would continue in the occupied West Bank "more or less as it has done previously. I see no reason to change it."

As those statements make abundantly clear, there is anything but a consensus for a "two-state solution" in Israeli ruling circles. Stephens observed that Netanyahu "scarcely disguises his disdain for a two-state agreement" and Israeli illegal settlement expansion "is designed to create facts on the ground that forestall the Palestinian state that Mr. Obama deems essential to an enduring peace."

As envisioned by supporters of the "two state solution" – with the backing of most of the government of the world – a new Palestinian state would come into being in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in 1967. Today that area has been colonized by over half a million Israelis, 60,000 of them since Obama inauguration. 

Obama "appeared to move closer to the Israeli position on Thursday regarding resumption of long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, stopping short of insisting on a halt to Israel's settlement expansion as he had done early in his first term," Mark Landler wrote in the New York Times March 21 "Mr. Netanyahu could take solace that Mr. Obama drew closer to his position that the Palestinians should negotiate without first extracting a halt to all settlement activity," Landler wrote from Amman two days later.

"The promise that his secretary of state will expend time and energy to help Israelis and Palestinians to come closer together is the minimum, practically a mere courtesy," said the German the Center-right German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "Otherwise, apart from a few unresolved doubts, Obama has completely adopted Netanyahu's course."

As Jonathan Tobin put it in the neo-conservative U.S. journal Commentary, Obama "said that settlements were not the core issue at the heart of the conflict and that if all the other factors dividing the two sides were resolved settlements would not prevent peace. Even more importantly, he emphasized that there ought to be no preconditions placed by either side before peace negotiations could be resumed."

Having apparently seen the light and concluded that a continuation of the status quo can lead to nothing good, New York Times columnist, Thomas Freidman, wrote last Sunday that the Palestinians "need to drop all their preconditions and enter negotiations" and Israel needs to "halt settlements." That's just plain silly. If the Palestinians drop their insistence that settlement expansion stop there will be no need for it to happen. If the Israelis halt the land grabbing there's no more precondition. As long as the Israeli colonial juggernaut rolls on there is no likelihood of a settlement, and a continuation of a "peace process," as it has been, will only allow Tel Aviv more time to create more "facts on the ground," which is just what the Israeli expansionists want.

"It isn't just our perception that settlements are illegal," said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "It is a global perspective. Everybody views settlements not only as a hurdle, but more than a hurdle to a two-state solution," he said. "We are asking for nothing outside the international legitimacy. It is the responsibility of the Israeli government to halt settlement activities so we can at least speak. "We hope that the Israeli government understands this, he said. "We hope they listen to the many opinions inside Israel itself speaking of the illegality of settlements."

"We should note that rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel on Thursday – a reckless and provocative act – while the Israelis showed good faith by avoiding the sorts of defiant acts, like announcing new settlements, that have marred American visits in the past," the New York Times Editorial Board said March 21.

Well, not exactly.

While Obama was still in the region and citing the rocket attack – carried out by a obscure an al-Qaida-linked group at odds with the Hamas government in Gaza – as a justification, the Israeli government cut in half the portion of the sea where it will allow Palestinians in Gaza to fish, threatening the livelihood of some 3,000 Palestinians who depend on the sea. "There is nothing to catch within three miles from shore," 62-year-old fisherman, Talal Shweikh, told the newspaper Ahram, "All the fish that you see in the market today came from Egypt."

Under the terms of the Oslo Accords of 1993, Palestinians were permitted to fish for up to 20 miles off the coast. However, in 2006 this limit was dropped to three. According to one report the restrictions, enforced by the Israeli navy, have resulted in the number of active fishermen shrinking from approximately 10,000 in the year 2000 to around 3,500 today.

Israeli authorities also closed Kerem Shalom, the only commercial crossing between Israel and Gaza.

"If there is quiet, the processes easing the lives of Gaza residents will continue. And if there is Katyusha (rocket) fire, then these moves will be slowed and even stopped and, if necessary, even reversed," an official Army Radio broadcast said. "We do not intend to give up on our right to respond to what happens in Gaza because of the agreement with the Turks."

On March 22, the day President Obama left Israel, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed five resolutions slamming Israel for settlement construction and abuses perpetrated against Palestinian civilians. The U.S. was the only member of the 47-nation council to vote against the measures. Of course, most of the U.S. mass media didn't bother to report the UN action.

"Will Mr. Obama also take the risks that will be needed to be a credible mediator and nudge the parties forward?" the New York Times said last week. "His new secretary of state, John Kerry, is eager to begin and will be in Israel this weekend, but will he have the space to conduct real diplomacy? And is there a sense of urgency on anyone's part? In recent years, Israel has built so many settlements that the options for finding a two-state solution are dwindling."

"Mr. Obama spent four years tweaking his relationship with Israel. On Thursday, he said `peace is possible.' The question is: How much will he, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority invest to make it happen?"

"Gone were Obama's demands," Washington Post columnist, Dana Milbank, wrote as Obama was winging it back to Washington. "Suppressed were his lofty ambitions. And absent were expectations, in his audience and among the American public, that he would achieve a peace breakthrough. It was a tacit admission of failure, yet everybody seemed happier with the scaled-back aspirations." On Sunday, the online Middle East commentary page, Mondoweiss, responded. "Does Dana seriously believe Palestinians were happier with `scaled-back aspirations' that leave occupation in place?"

The Israeli daily Haaretz put the question this way March 21: "Here lies the central danger of the visit. The Israeli government and public could conclude, based on the polite tone of the president and the lack of a threat or demonstrative pressure, that Israel is now exempt from having to initiate steps toward resuming the peace process."

"This would be a horrible conclusion," continued Haaretz. "Obama and the United States are not a party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president of the United States is not the one who must live in a society that is being transformed as a result of the occupation and pushed to the margins of the international community. Netanyahu is correct in saying, as Washington has made clear many times, that the United States cannot want peace more than the parties themselves. But the weakness the Americans have demonstrated until now in every way over the peace process actually proves that it is Israel that must offer new plans and proposals and advance the implementation of the agreed two-state formula.

"Obama can and must make clear to Israel how the continuation of the occupation could affect bilateral relations, harm the U.S. position in the region and erode the American public's support for Israel. He owes this to Israel and to the citizens of his country. Netanyahu, on his part, cannot settle for "surviving" the visit or for mutual pats on the back. He is responsible for renewing negotiations with the Palestinians."

"The US president, of course, has it in his power to confound the skeptics." Stephens wrote in the Financial Times. "He reminded the Iranian regime that he is ready to deploy America's military might to prevent Tehran building a nuclear bomb. Every conversation I have had with those close to him tells me that he is not bluffing. But there's the puzzle. How could a president with sufficient resolve, if needed, to start a war against Iran fail to invest the power and prestige of his office in the cause of a Middle East peace?"

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union. Bloice is one of the moderators of Portside. Other Carl Bloice writing can be found at leftmargin.wordpress.com.

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