Saturday, May 21, 2011
On President Obama's Middle East Speech
(Photo: Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister and U.S. presidential advisor Benjamin Netanyahu shown in front of the Islamic Noble Sanctuary in occupied Jerusalem).
President Obama made a speech on Thursday that was billed as a major policy speech on the Middle East, touching on both the wave of "Arab Spring" revolutions and the Palestine/Israel conflict. Perhaps you missed this bit of reporting from the New York Times:
"The Israeli government immediately protested, saying that for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders would leave it “indefensible.” Mr. Netanyahu held an angry phone conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday before [emphasis added —ish] the speech, officials said, in which he demanded that the president’s reference to 1967 borders be cut.
Israeli officials continued to lobby the administration until right before Mr. Obama arrived at the State Department for the address. White House officials said he did not alter anything under Israeli pressure, though the president made changes in the text that delayed his appearance by 35 minutes. "
Yes, you read that correctly. The White House submitted Obama's speech to Israel for approval before he delivered it and the Israeli government was making demands on what President Obama could say before he said it. And why not? United States policy is, in reality, identical to the ethnic cleansing, racist, and brutal collective punishment policies of the Apartheid state of Israel. The U.S. is Israel's major economic and political partner, and Israel knows it has carte blanche for absolutely whatever it wants to do. And furthermore by the utterly insane logic of American politics, it is widely believed that it is political suicide for politicians — and Presidents — to offend either the Israel lobby or pro-Israel Jewish voters and therefore successful American politicians must remain firmly in the pocket of Israel if they want to remain successful.
Shortly before the speech and prior to his departure to meet with Obama in Washington on Friday, Netanyahu was meeting with Israel's Interior Ministry to discuss expanding Israeli settlements near occupied East Jerusalem. Israeli settlement-building — actually ethnic cleansing and land theft illegal by international law — was not mentioned by President Obama in his speech.
Nevertheless, Obama went on his speech to suggest that the future negotiated state of Palestine be based on the 1967 borders of Israel, "with agreed-upon land swaps." This mild statement recognizing the bare minimums of accepted international law drew harsh criticism from Netanyahu who said before, during, and after his meeting with Obama on Friday, "it's not gonna happen." But the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu went great according to the Huffington Post: Benjamin Netanyahu went into the White House Friday "worried, but came out encouraged," according to a senior Israeli official briefed on the prime minister's frank meeting with President Barack Obama. Obama issued a statement, "So, overall, I thought this was an extremely constructive discussion. And coming out of this discussion, I once again can reaffirm that the extraordinarily close relationship between the United States and Israel is sound and will continue."
(Photo: Israeli arms supplier and ethnic-cleansing enabler Barack Obama speaking on the Middle East in Washington on Thursday).
So what did Obama say in his speech? He discussed the pro-democracy protests sweeping the Arab world. He did not, of course, mention the decades of support given to Arab dictators by the United States. Somewhat surprisingly Mr. Obama did criticize the crackdown by the Bahraini government against democracy protesters. (Though of course he had nothing to say about it when it was happening.) Obama notably failed to name one country in particular, and that is close U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, a dictatorship and religious theocracy that actually sent in troops to Bahrain so that Bahraini security forces could do the actual dirty work of crushing the protest movement.
Speaking of religious theocracies, Mr. Obama endorsed the official Israeli line: "Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people." Which of course is great news for the soon to be ethnic-cleansed Christian and Muslim Arab citizens of Israel proper. (Israel is now in fact requiring loyalty oaths of new immigrants to "the Jewish state.")
Obama did not mention Israeli "settlements" in the occupied territories. And he implied discussion of the right of return of Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel and the status of Jerusalem could be left til later. He said the future Palestine would share a border with Jordan, and this is what really pissed off Netanyahu. In Netanyahu's vision the Israeli military will keep possession of the Jordan Valley, and any Palestinian microstate Bantustan will be isolated from direct borders with the outside world. But never fear, Netanyahu, because Obama said that Israel had the right to defend itself, while Palestine would be a "non-militarized state." One might suggest Obama study the historical definition of the term "state."
To my mind the worst thing Obama said about Israel and Palestine was this: "For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own." He repeats the Zionist propaganda lie that Israel is the victim of violence, and Palestinians merely the victims of symbolism. The truth, as Omar Barghouti points out below, is that Palestinians are actually, now, being ethnically cleansed. They are actually the victims of violence on a scale far beyond the (tragic and occasional) victims of terrorism.
Obama's conclusion, "That is the choice that must be made -– not simply in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but across the entire region -– a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future" seems to me particularly hollow. Because despite all the rhetoric about hope when it comes down to actual actions on the ground, the U.S. can be counted on to back the status quo, to take the side of Israel, and to hang on to the coattails of regional dictators until the last possible moment. The American government has claimed to oppose illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories for years. But when it came to a U.N. vote to condemn those settlements just this past winter, the U.S. took Israel's side and vetoed the U.N. criticism. There is no heroism, no hope, no principle, no audacity in that move. It was the same old crass complicity in the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.
On Nakba day, thousands of nonviolent unarmed Palestinians rushed Israel's boundaries, in the case of the Golan Heights on the border with Syria, successfully breaching the territory occupied by Israel since 1967. Israel responded by shooting dozens. It is those people, the people of the Arab Spring, who will ultimately solve this problem. The Middle East does not need another ethnic theocracy: it needs a democratic and secular state in Palestine. It can be a homeland for Jews as well as non-Jews, but it cannot be built on the basis of injustice and denial of rights to the people who live there or were forced out in the past sixty years. To coin a phrase, a two-state solution where the Palestinians are locked in a unsustainable prison at the mercy of a military machine armed by the most powerful nation on earth "just isn't gonna happen."
Independent (and secular) Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti was asked by The Real News to comment on President Obama's speech. He said that he thought it was irrelevant, and that nobody in the region but the Israelis and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas was that interested in what Obama had to say on the matter. "The best thing that the U.S. can do is leave us alone." The interview with Barghouti is extraordinary, and should be required viewing. It follows below.