Obama and Israel: The pessimistic perspective

Barack Obama's election was widely expected to usher in a more even-handed policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the Cairo speech of 4 June 2009, Obama expressed support for ‘the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own’. Obama is a spell-binding orator. However, to use an American phrase, he is better at talking the talk than at walking the walk. The rhetoric has changed but subservience to Israel remains the order of the day.
 
Obama, to be fair, did recognize at the outset that the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank is the main obstacle to progress. He therefore insisted on a complete settlement freeze. Obama had three showdowns with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on this critical issue but he backed down each time. Why did the most powerful man in the world allow himself to be defeated and humiliated by his junior partner? The answer must lie, to a large extent, in the persistent power of the Israel lobby in the United States.
 
The direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched by Secretary Clinton in Washington on 2 September were an exercise in futility. There is an Arabic saying that something that starts crooked remains crooked. These peace talks started in a crooked way because they did not meet the most basic Palestinian requirement: a complete freeze on settlement activity. All that Netanyahu grudgingly agreed to was a partial settlement freeze for a period of ten months. The ban did not apply to the 3,000 housing units on the West Bank that had already been approved or to East Jerusalem, which Israel had illegally annexed following the June 1967 War. When the picayune ban expired on 27 September, Netanyahu refused to extend it.
 
To entice Netanyahu to extend the settlement freeze by 60 days only, Obama offered him a long-term security agreement, a squadron of F-35 fighter jets worth $3 billion, and the use of the American veto on the UN Security Council to defeat any resolution that is not to Israel’s liking. Israel was also given the option of buying another squadron of F-35s – Buy one, get one free! The hardliners in Netanyahu’s coalition forced him to reject this amazingly generous offer. Some people are never satisfied.
 
The conclusion is inescapable: Netanyahu is not a genuine partner for the Palestinians on the road to peace. Land-grabbing and peace-making simply do not go together and Israel’s right-wing government has opted for the former. Netanyahu is like a man who, while negotiating the division of a pizza, continues to eat it. Obama’s position is pusillanimous and, for a superpower, indescribably feeble. Instead of leaning on the stronger party, he presses the weaker party to make more and more concessions. Under these conditions, the prospects of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are close to zero. With Obama in charge of the so-called peace process, there is no light at the end of the tunnel, only more illegal settlements, and consequently more strife, more violence, more bloodshed, and ultimately a third intifada.
 
The damage that Israel causes to American interests is incalculable. During the Cold War Israel was a strategic asset for America. Today it is a political, diplomatic, and strategic liability. The neoconservatives never tire of telling us that the American and the Israeli national interests are identical. Anyone who believes that would believe anything. An argument can be made that the occupation of the West Bank serves the Israeli national interest, though I would dispute that. However, the argument that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank serves the American national interest is simply preposterous. As CENTROM commander, General David Petraeus, told Congress, Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is jeopardizing U.S. standing in the entire region. And as Vice President Joe Biden reportedly told Netanyahu: ‘What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace’.
 
Yet Israel continues to get away literally with murder. The basic problem is that Israel is a domestic issue in the US, not a foreign policy one. The pattern is the same under both Republican and Democratic administrations. At the first hint of pressure on Israel from the White House, the lobby wheels out the heavy guns on Capitol Hill to knock it out. Congress is sometimes described as Israeli-occupied territory. With such an ineffectual president in the White House, it is likely to take longer to liberate Congress than to liberate the Palestinian territories.
 
Avi Shlaim is a Fellow of St Antony’s College Oxford and the author of Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (Verso).