People who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 did so for many reasons, but his position on the occupation of Palestine was not high among them.
For those within the US Palestine solidarity community, there was perhaps a glimmer of hope in a man who openly acknowledged Palestinian suffering and counted Palestinian-Americans as friends or colleagues.
Josh Ruebner’s book Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace (Verso, 2013) goes a long way toward explaining why those nascent hopes were dashed. At the same time, however, it locates new sources of hope in shifting US public opinion and emerging cracks in the consensus policies of the national security establishment, both of which provide openings for the Palestinian struggle against Israeli apartheid.
Ruebner is the national advocacy director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation where his work is known for meticulous and diligent research. He brings those same skills to this book.
Ruebner acknowledges that much remains to be learned before a full accounting can be made of the Obama administration’s policies and practices toward Palestine during its first term. In addition to news reports, Ruebner relies on the cache of US State Department documents released by Wikileaks as well as the Palestine Papers revealed by Al Jazeera. The latter were meeting minutes, maps, and memoranda of the Palestinian Authority’s negotiating team from its “peace process” meetings with Israeli officials.
Reason to hope?
Was there reason to hope that Obama might be different from his predecessors and the US government might finally play the role of honest broker in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations?
As an Illinois state senator, Obama “developed strong working relations with a politically empowered Palestinian-American constituency in his Hyde Park-based district,” Ruebner writes.
He had friendly relations with the Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi, who was also on the faculty of the University of Chicago at the time Obama taught constitutional law there. And he impressed Ali Abunimah, the co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, as “ ‘progressive, intelligent, and charismatic’.” Yet in his first run for Congress in 2000, Ruebner notes, “it became evident … that Obama was more than willing to dismiss the knowledge and advice he received from his Palestinian-American and liberal Jewish-American friends if it stood in the way of advancing his career,” instead crafting “policy positions to endear himself to pro-Israel political action committees.”
Obama’s presidential campaign exhibited the same types of contradictions. Obama memorably told an Iowa caucus in March 2007 that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people,” only to take the teeth out of the remark once it was publicized. He did so with a campaign statement “clarifying” that the Palestinian people had suffered the most due to Palestinian “misleadership.”
Nevertheless, once elected, Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt, “expressed a level of empathy for the plight of the Palestinian people that was unequaled by any previous sitting US president, even President Jimmy Carter,” Ruebner notes. The Obama administration also pressed for a freeze on Israel’s illegal settlement building as a precursor to peace negotiations, and he appointed former US Senator George Mitchell, who had helped broker peace in Northern Ireland, to be his chief mediator in Israeli-Palestinian talks, a move that appeared to be a significant step forward.
The Israel lobby
How a seemingly promising beginning completely unraveled, with the considerable help of the Israel lobby’s Dennis Ross, takes up most of the narrative of the first section of Shattered Hopes. By the end of that narrative, Ruebner concludes that the Obama administration was unwilling to use any of its considerable leverage with Israel to make progress in peace negotiations.
When the Palestinian Authority stepped away from the sham “peace process” and attempted to “re-internationalize” their case by going to the United Nations, the US role was thoroughly exposed as it took positions in the UN Security Council that directly contradicted its own policies.
For example, when the US exercised its veto in the UN Security Council in February 2011 against a resolution condemning Israel’s settlements as illegal, Ruebner writes, “Palestinians succeeded in demonstrating that US opposition to Israel’s settlements was only rhetorical and that Israel’s continued defiance of the United States carried no penalties.” Moreover, “the Palestinians stripped bare the outrageous claim that the United States was an ‘honest broker’ capable of mediating a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
In Part II of Shattered Hopes, Ruebner shows just how thoroughly the Obama administration provided diplomatic, political and military support for Israel throughout its first term. This included condemning the UN Human Rights Council’s findings, commonly known as the Goldstone report, on the war crimes committed by Israel during the 2008-2009 “Operation Cast Lead” and backing Israel for its massacre onboard the Mavi Marmara (the aid ship that attempted to break the siege of Gaza in May 2010) — even though a US citizen was among those killed by the Israeli forces who stormed the ship in international waters.
The perception promoted in the mainstream media and encouraged by the pro-Netanyahu Israel lobby that Obama was “hostile” to Israel was due mainly to Obama’s rhetorical support for Palestinian rights rather than any substantive change in US policy.
Shattered Hopes does find hope, however, just not in the Obama administration, but in the growth of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, and in emerging cracks in the national security establishment’s embrace of Israel as its principal strategic ally in the Middle East.
Such remarks suggest that Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians is jeopardizing US standing in the Middle East and even threatening the lives of US soldiers in the region. It remains to be seen how real or deep those fissures are, however.
When Panetta pounded his fist urging Israel and the Palestinian Authority to “get back to the table,” was he really interested in a just peace settlement or the appearance of a peace process that allows Israel to continue to colonize Palestinian land?
The answer seems obvious given the history of past peace negotiations and the US establishment’s consensus behind the notion of a Jewish state and the priority of Israeli “security.”
Shattered Hopes reminds us that anyone who occupies the Oval Office, no matter how seemingly progressive, is tied by a thousand threads to the national security state – perhaps more aptly named the military-industrial-petroleum complex — and has little ability to bring about change without a mass movement from below demanding a foreign policy based on universal human rights and an end to hegemony and neocolonialism.
Rod Such is a freelance writer and former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is a member of the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign and Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights.