Why Obama won’t take on Israel

15 November 2012

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Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

(Zhang Jun / Xinhua/Zumapress)

Barack Obama’s victory in the US presidential election last week was greeted with general unease in Israel.

Surveys conducted outside the US shortly before polling day showed Obama was the preferred candidate in every country but two — Pakistan and Israel. But unlike Pakistan, where the two candidates were equally unpopular, he scored just 22 percent in Israel against a commanding 57 percent for Mitt Romney.

Given these figures, it is unsurprising that Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made little effort to conceal his political sympathies, laying on a hero’s welcome for Romney when he visited Jerusalem in the summer and starring in several of his TV campaign ads.

Ehud Olmert, a former Israeli prime minister, accused Netanyahu of “spitting” in the president’s face, warning that Israel would now be exposed to Obama’s second-term wrath (“Olmert blasts Bibi on Iran, relationship with Obama,” The Daily Beast, 6 November).

The general wisdom is that the president, freed of worries about being re-elected, will seek his revenge, both for Netanyahu’s long-term intransigence in the peace process and for interfering in the US campaign.

Newspaper cartoons summed up the mood last week. The liberal Haaretz showed a sweating Netanyahu gingerly putting his head into the mouth of an Obama-faced lion, while the right-wing Jerusalem Post had Netanyahu exclaiming “Oh bummer!” as he read the headlines.

The speculation among Israelis and many observers is that an Obama second term will see much greater pressure on Israel both to make major concessions on Palestinian statehood and to end its aggressive posturing towards Iran over its supposed ambition to build a nuclear warhead.

Bullish mood

Such thinking, however, is fanciful. The White House’s approach towards Netanyahu and Israel is unlikely to alter significantly.

Netanyahu’s bullish mood was certainly on display as voting in the US election was under way: his government announced plans to build more than 1,200 homes for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem, the presumed capital of a future Palestinian state (“Israel pushes forward with 1,200 homes in East Jerusalem settlements,” Guardian, 6 November).

The reality, as Netanyahu understands well, is that Obama’s hands are now tied as firmly in the Middle East as they were during his first term.

Obama got burnt previously when he tried to impose a settlement freeze. There are no grounds for believing that Israel’s far-right lobbyists in Washington, led by AIPAC, will give the president an easier ride this time.

And as Ron Ben Yishai, a veteran Israeli commentator, noted, Obama will face the same US Congress, one that has “traditionally been a stronghold of near-unconditional support for Israel” (“Obama better for Israel,” Ynet, 6 November).

Obama may not have to worry about re-election but he will not want to hand a poisoned legacy to the next Democratic presidential candidate, nor will want to mire his own final term in damaging confrontations with Israel. Memories are still raw of Bill Clinton’s failed gamble to push through a peace deal — one that, in truth, was a far-more generous to Israel than the Palestinians — at Camp David in the dying days of his second term.

And whatever his personal antipathy towards the Israeli prime minister, Obama also knows that, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict aside, his policies in the Middle East are either aligned with Israel’s or dependent on Netanyahu’s cooperation to work.

Limited revenge?

Both Obama and Netanyahu want the Israel-Egypt peace agreement to hold. Both need to ensure the civil war in Syria does not spiral out of control, as the cross-border salvos in the Golan Heights have indicated in the past few days. Both prefer repressive West-friendly dictators in the region over Islamist gains.

And, of course, both want to box in Iran on its nuclear ambitions. So far Netanyahu has reluctantly toed the US line on “giving sanctions a chance,” toning down his rhetoric about launching an attack. The last thing the White House needs is a sulking Israeli premier priming his cohorts in Washington to undermine US policy.

A sliver of hope for Netanyahu’s opponents is that a disgruntled US president might still take limited revenge, turning the tables by interfering in the Israeli elections due in January. He could back more moderate challengers such as Olmert or Tzipi Livni, if they choose to run and start to look credible.

But even that would be a big gamble.

The evidence shows that, whatever the makeup of the next Israeli governing coalition, it will espouse policies little different from the current one. That simply reflects the lurch rightwards among Israeli voters, as indicated in a poll this month showing that 80 percent now believe it is impossible to make peace with the Palestinians.

In fact, given the mood in Israel, an obvious attempt by Obama to side with one of Netanyahu’s opponents might actually harm their prospects for success. Netanyahu has already demonstrated to Israelis that he can defeat the US president in a staring contest. Many Israelis are likely to conclude that no one is better placed to keep an unsympathetic Obama in check in his second term.

Faced with a popular consensus in Israel and political backing in the US Congress for a hard line with the Palestinians, Obama is an unlikely champion of the peace process – and even of the Palestinians’ current lowly ambition to win observer status at the United Nations. A vote on this matter is currently threatened for 29 November, with the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas apparently hoping that the anniversary of the 1947 UN partition plan for Palestine will provide emotional resonance.

Meanwhile, all Israel’s main parties are battling for the large pool of right-wing votes. Shelly Yacimovich, leader of the opposition Labor party, last week denied her party was “left-wing,” in a sign of how dirty that word has become in Israel. She has studiously avoided mentioning the Palestinians or diplomatic issues.

And the great new hope of Israeli politics, former TV star Yair Lapid, has rapidly come to sound like a Netanyahu-lite. Last week he publicly opposed giving up even the Palestinian parts of East Jerusalem, arguing that the Palestinians could be browbeaten into surrendering their putative capital (“Lapid: If Israel stands firm Palestinians will give up on East Jerusalem,” Haaretz, 8 November).

The reality is that the White House is stuck with an Israeli government, with or without Netanyahu, that rejects an agreement with the Palestinians. As violence flares again in Gaza — as occurred in the run-up to the last Israeli election — it looks disturbingly like four more years of the same.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His new website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

A version of this article originally appeared in The National (Abu Dhabi).

Comments

Something has got to give.

One point: "[Obama] could back more moderate challengers such as Olmert or Tzipi Livni".

Their being "moderate" remains to be seen. During the 2008/2009 attack on the Gaza Strip they were Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, respectively, of Israel. (Note: they lost the 2009 election, despite their attack/campaign. The same for Barak, in 2008 Minister of Defense).

I'd say there are no "moderates" in Israel politics (never use the word "dove").

Cook is likely right in using the word "fanciful" regarding expectations that Pres. O'Bomber will change our relationship with Nut-and-yahoo and Israel, but as a "lame duck" president he has an opportunity to become a great president by ceasing our sickening subservience to one of the world's most evil states, Israel. I'm hoping that people such as Abunimah put all the pressure they can on O'Bomber, so that I won't continue to be ashamed to live in the USA.

The holocaust against the Jews was and will always be an unforgettable crime. The Palestinian Nation of peoples has surely, by any standard of measurement, been living their own holocaust stretching back decades. Innocent( for they were not consulted) Palestinians are being ethnically cleansed from their ancient homelands, they have, and to this day, are still being robbed of all they rightfully own. They suffer the rape of property, the loss of all human rights and dignity, and are forced to live terribly degraded sub standard lives, whilst waiting their turn on the receiving end of Israeli weapons, sanctions, and what passes for Israeli largess. All this whilst locked behind huge prison walls, that requires Israeli permission to enable travel on limited roads populated with endless "checkpoints". Just as the Jews can never forget the holocaust, it is clear, even to blind Yacob and his dog, that no Arab, especially Palestinian Arabs, will ever allow their collective memories to forget atrocities cruelly forced upon them. By their actions Israelis have revealed to the whole World, their true nature and character. Citizens of the U.S. and Australia are complicit in these crimes through support of veto's preventing further action against Israel at the U.N.. Given all of the foregoing, does it not speak volumes of praise and admiration for the lone wife prepared ethically to take a stand against the crimes committed on The Palestinians? And what does anyone think future generations will say and do, either Israeli or Arab Palestinian. And will Israeli's understand the unforgettable threat all this poses in their future?

In fact, in the run up to 1947 the UN was negotiating with both the Palestinians and Jews (were not yet considered Israelis) in order to build a two state plan. However both sides were unwilling to compromise, and both committed acts of violence against each other. They later found their patrons to arm them, and in a stroke of fortune, in 1948, 1967, and 1973 the Jews were the ones victorious. Do not pretend that these wars did not occur, or that the Palestinians never targeted Israeli civilians. You are entitled to your own opinions, not your own facts.

Israel has been committing an untold number of crimes against humanity directed at the indigenous Palestinians before, and after their illegal state was formed.

The UN had novstatutory right to carve up one country and give that to some Eastern Europe and Russian interlopers, but they did and what has that got the world?

A non-stop wave of violence, directed against the Palestinians in order to either kill them off or scare them away--like the Zionist Terrorist gangs did in Deir Yassin--in order to steal ALL of Palestine, some of Lebanon, some of Syria and chomp off the Sinai.

That this Zionist terrorist activity is supported by American tax dollars makes me weep.

>> The UN had no statutory right to carve up one country

Palestinian national feelings are real, are genuine, and are worthy of praise.

What is NOT worthy of praise is pretending that Palestine ever was a sovereign country; or that anyone except Hebrew Kings ever held their capital in Jerusalem.

Perhaps we should return Palestine to Turkish rule?

Well-written and I wholly agree with you!

The hour approaches for Israel, I think. The moment it has been waiting for all along and which King Netanyahu craves. It will be your moment.

As the snake uncoils out of its hole again, the Gulf parasitical regimes wither, and regional or world war becomes a clear possibility, I have but one piece of advice for the American government and the American people: Rethink your policy and do it very quickly! Dissociate yourself from the Zionist colony as far as you possibly can before the moment lands on all our heads, and it will.

Zionism is dead.

You are right, it is not going to happen from the top down. BUT it is happening in one significant way with the growing grass roots efforts of BDS. Just look at the other articles posted recently in ei and it reminds us that there are effective ways to bring the issue into public attention, to nudge (if not push) our elected officials, to worry Israel and to cast strobe light attention onto their illicit actions going on daily in Occupied Palestine. It comes from people returning from trips to Occupied Palestine, like two in our area who now are giving community presentations on what they saw and experienced. It is the power of the nonviolent approach. Like hunger strikes, marches, boycotts, protests and actions of civil disobedience. It is a powerful force that when used begins to undermine the legitimacy of the aggressor, begins to equalise the vastly unequal playing field, and garners the growing support of those outside of the situation. It is not passive. It is aggressive in a nonlethal way. It gets in the face of those seeking to put you down. And it works, like it did in India, in the United States, in South Africa and most recently in the Arab Spring. It is powerful and it does bring about significant change. And the BDS efforts are but one of many of the nonviolent ways bringing truth to power and accomplishing a growing list of successes.

It comes from people returning from trips to Occupied Palestine, like two in our area who now are giving community presentations on what they saw and experienced.

Where is Secretary of State Clinton in all of this and why is Obama taking all the pressure and not the State Department. Why is there such silence from the State Department both now and in the first invasion of Gaza in 2008?

"Both [Obama and Netanyahu] need to ensure the civil war in Syria does not spiral out of control"

NO. Syria needs to manage itself and we need to get out. The American people are tired of pinching the ears of the unruly middle east children.

Until you read about the history of US Foreign policy and their role in the middle east from 1945 until today, you really should refrain from making ignorant comments.

The assumption is that Obama wants to do anything different from what he's been doing the last four years.

Here in the US, that's been the problem. Obama, in 2008, ran a Wall $treet financed propaganda campaign that presented the illusion that Obama was more progressive than Hillary. The problem on the left in the US is that most of the left-leaning voters for some reason tend to believe that this is 'the real Obama'. Thus, they keep waiting for this progressive super-man, as portrayed by the Wall $treet propaganda campaign, to re-appear. And they constantly make up strange excuses for all the reasons why this progressive super-hero Obama is hamstrung and apparently can't do what he wants to do.

Its all a load of bull. Obama was always backed by the war party. He was hand-picked by the Kerry 2004 team to speak at the DNC when the theme was all about Kerry being a military hero and pro-war. Obama made one anti-war comment about the 2003 war, when he was a state senator serving an African-American, urban district that was undoubtedly very anti-war. So, basically he did what he usually does, which is to say what he thought voters wanted to here.

Look at Obama's record. Look at the big corporate money in his accounts. Look at is real record of supporting wars. Look at how the last time Israel was committing war crimes in Gaza, he just let them do whatever they wanted to do. At some point, learn that this progressive Obama that everyone seems to believe in was really just a figment of a Wall$treet financed pr campaign, and that it IS NOT REAL.

This might seem simplistic, but the problem in the Middle East will never be solved as long as the US has this unbalanced foreign policy where Israel has cart Blanche to do whatever it wants without criticism. Also by continually supplying funds to that country and where the funds are used to stock pile their war machine. There has to be conditions in supporting any country, including Israel. Israel has the right to exist but the West will have to starting looking honestly that Israel is also part of the problem and never part of the solution with their treatment of the Palestinian people. I also criticize the Palestinians their methods used to solve their grievances, but I also understand their frustration on being oppressed (and literally robbed) for so long and where the world sits idly by.

The current attack on Gaza has a two fold benefit for Netanyahoo. They are trying to scuttle the bid for Palestinian statehood at the UN. The Likud government is trying to shore up its votes for the elections in January. After all, in Israel the one who is able to kill more Palestinians is the winner of the elections. This attack has nothing to do with rockets that are fired from Gaza!

In January 2011, in her joint lecture w/ Noam Chomsky at MIT - Nancy Murray (cofounder of the Gaza Mental Health Foundation) pointed out that the Israelis, for several months, intentionally blocked the UN from receiving the equipment which would dispose of unexploded ordnance from Operation Cast Lead. The effect of this was to allow much of those explosives to be diverted into rockets by Hamas and other factions. I am convinced that the Israelis did this deliberately-- they need the rockets as an excuse to commit further atrocities against the people of Gaza.

This fall election, Romney received only 4 per cent of the Muslim American vote, according to CAIR's estimates. Why can't the pro-Palestinian liberation movement emulate AIPAC? The Muslim American population is growing, while the Jewish American population is not. Of course, there is the problem of Christian Zionists advocating for Israel as well. Another issue is that Obama is hardly any more pro justice on this issue than Romney.

So what do we do? I say embrace the Liberty and non-interventionist movement advocated by Ron Paul. His son Rand will likely run for president for 2016, and he might be a credible alternative to the inevitably cowardly Democratic Party nominee. He opposes aid to all foreign nations, even though he emphasizes ending aid to our enemies. He also opposes intervention in the Middle East and opposes war with Iran. Another up and comer in the Liberty movement is Justin Amash.

Let's stop putting all of our eggs in one basket. Both parties are filled with craven people who will continue to kiss AIPAC's ass. Why not support those who really would support (or at least not be diametrically opposed to) your desire for peace and justice in Palestine? Embrace libertarianism folks in either party. Stop being had by the typical Democrats and the neocons in the GOP.

If the Pauls' positions on such issues as abortions rights, marriage equality, and our vital social insurance programs (SS, Medicare, Medicaid) weren't so reactionary, I would certainly consider supporting them: I agree with their overall stance on drug prohibition, foreign entanglements, and military spending.

Surely that Obama is cheerleading the killing, protecting Israel at the UN, and probably organizing resupply of those bombs and missiles from NATO arsenals can't possibly be a surprise. The man made it quite clear during the campaign that he pledged total fealty and support to Israel. The 'debate' over Israel between Romney and Obama was each trying to out-do the other on who was more supportive of Israel.

There were other candidates on most ballots. Many of these would have brought a very different approach. On my ballot, there were other candidates for Congress too. To my fellow Americans, if you choose to vote for Obama, then you voted for this. Obama didn't fool anyone. Obama made it quite clear what he would do in this case, if for no other reason than that Obama is doing the same thing he did four years ago as President-elect during Cast Lead .... supporting Israel.

I can say I did not vote for this. I voted for one of those other choices on the ballot. But, to my fellow Americans who did vote Democrat, you did vote for this. You can't say you were fooled. You watched Obama do this four years ago. You heard Obama say he would do this now, and you walked into a voting booth and said that this is what you wanted instead of choices that would be a real change.

This isn't about AIPAC. This isn't about lobbyists, or The Lobby. This isn't about Obama being somehow hamstrung and unable to act. This is about the choice that Americans just made at the polls. If you are an American and this disturbs you, then please try voting for someone different next time.

Ethnic MiddleEasterners of mainly Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths lived equably with each other for hundreds of years. The aggression in the region is the colonial implantation of European Jews beginning mainly in the 1940s to meet their need to have place of their own following the Nazi years. While one sympathizes greatly with the plight of these Jews, the forcible displacement and, in several well verified instances of mass murder, of entire Palestinian populations did occur. It is this latter wrong that must be corrected by the conversion of the State of Israel into a democratic State for all the peoples involved. The Europeans and the Americans were complicit in the Jewish holocaust and have been complicit in the Palestinian Nakba; therefore, they must enable the conversion of Israel from aggressor status to accommodation and reconciliation status. The alternative will be continued death and destruction of all concerned with serious implications for worldwide conflict.

It may sound very far fetched, however why can there not be a single democratic state for all. If they are all true to their religion then why can that not be possible... The rest of the world does it... The alternative is centuries of killing each other... and for what?

The incredibly myopic vision of American Presidents since 1960 has resulted in a molded-in-granite-which-is-encased-in-titanium "Israel Can Do No Wrong" American Middle-East foreign policy. Obama is no exception. The prevailing, and long-enduring, joke in Israeli government offices, restaurants, and private homes is that fundamentalist Protestant preachers and flocks constitute a vast army of "useful idiots". They are oblivious to the contempt in which they are held by those whom they worship. Pridefully, they mount the apologetics barricades for Israel - regardless of the magnitude of Israel's crimes against defenseless Palestinian civilians. These so-called "Christian Zionists" - along with the murderous entity they shamelessly worship - will have much to answer for on The Day of The Final Judgement.