Exclusive to The Gulf Today
When he comes to this region US President Barack Obama is a man of sweet words. Shortly after he and his family moved into the White House, he gave an interview to Al Arabia satellite channel calling for US-Muslim rapprochement. Six months later, he addressed the Muslim world from a podium at the American University in Cairo and urged negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis that would end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and lead to the emergence of a Palestinian state.
During last week’s visits to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Amman he used the very same words he employed in 2009 when he spoke of the Palestinians. He called on Israelis and the international community to recognise Palestinian humanity and treat them justly. To young Israelis he stated, “Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes.
“It’s not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home.”
He observed “neither occupation nor expulsion” is the solution. “Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.” These are fine words, indeed. However, they reveal that Obama has still not absorbed Israel’s message: “Palestinians can exercise the right to be a free people but not in Palestine.” Furthermore, he did not come to the region with a plan that would contradict the Israeli message and compel the new government under Binyamin Netanyahu to agree to the “two-state solution.” Netanyahu, his ministers, the Knesset, the colonists/settlers, and the Israeli public at large have no intention of committing to and implementing the “two-state solution.”
It should be called the “two-state illusion” because Israel and its Zionist supporters the world over have used negotiations to cover their land grab in Palestine. Israel will never permit the repartition of Palestine. As far as they are concerned, all of Palestine is Israel and the Palestinians have no rights to or in this land.
All Obama’s fine words are empty and will come to nothing even after he departed with Secretary of State John Kerry for consultations with both Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Unfortunately, the pressure is on Abbas to negotiate without a colonisation freeze while Netanyahu is offering to negotiate without conditions, especially a freeze. Instead of exerting pressure on the Israeli government to halt colonisation and lift roadblocks and remove checkpoints in the West Bank to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement, Obama sweet-talked Israeli youth who have no influence on the political elite and no power over their own fate.
In a letter to The New York Times, Barbara Allen Kenney made a very innovative but impossible suggestion. She said Israeli colonies would not be an obstacle to negotiations if they were coupled with the Palestinian right to return. In any deal, Palestinians could lay claim to these colonies, transforming them into housing and infrastructure for a Palestinian state. This will never happen. When Israel withdrew its 8,000 colonists from Gaza they trashed their homes which were bulldozed along with other facilities and the rubble left behind for Palestinians to clear away.
As president of the faltering, failing global hyper-power, Obama has to indulge in public relations. His sweet words are meant to keep the Arab street sweet. But he has fooled no one. The primary purpose of Obama’s visit to Israel was domestic. He needs to win over the pro-Israel US lobby which has the majority of the country’s lawmakers in its malign grip. Obama calculates if the Israeli lobby exercises its muscle in favour of Obama’s legislative programme, he might, just, get key bills passed.
Obama has been heavily criticised for his hostile relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. During this visit, Obama made a show of friendliness and familiarity, calling the Israeli by his nickname, “Bibi.” Netanyahu did not, however, call Obama “Barry,” the nickname he wore as a young man. This would have been a step too far because their relationship remains dysfunctional. The smiles and backslapping were public relations gestures that did not signify a meeting of minds.
Netanyahu is also seeking to improve his image and bargaining power on the home front. His Likud party lost seats in the recent Knesset election, he is unpopular, and his coalition partners have competing and conflicting agendas.
Netanyahyu needs to show Israelis that he has a positive relationship with the president and Israel’s only real friend and true ally on the international scene. When relations between Tel Aviv and Washington are strained, Israelis feel isolated and exposed and shiver in the chill wind of international disapproval over their country’s treatment of the Palestinians. Israeli fears have grown over the past two years because of instability in Egypt and the conflict in Syria where there is a very real danger that the country could fragment and its fragments fall under the rule of deeply anti-Israeli Salafi jihadis.
There was one serious issue on which Obama made his point of view very clear. Behind closed doors, Obama told Netanyahu that the White House and Pentagon continue to oppose Israeli military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Obama cannot count on Israeli loyalists in Congress to restrain Israel in any way on this issue. In public, Obama gave Israelis reassurances over their security. Netanyahu boasted that Obama had conceded that “Israel must be able to defend itself against any threats” and that Israel would “never cede the right to defend ourselves to others.”
Netanyahu projected the notion that Israel reserves the right to bomb Iran at will despite fears that such action could lead to Iranian retaliation against US allies and interests in the Middle East and destabilise an already unstable region.
On the public relations front, Obama was the bigger winner. He managed to convince Netanyahu that he should apologise to Turkey over the Israeli commando attack on the Istanbul ferry, Mavi Mamara, bound for Israeli besieged and blockaded Gaza that killed nine Turkish activists in May 2010. Israel also pledged to compensate the families of the victims. Netanyahu had repeatedly refused to either apologise or offer compensation although this was the price set by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for reconciliation between his country and Israel.
Obama hailed Netanyahu’s capitulation on this issue as a major diplomatic achievement. He said the renewal of the Israeli-Turkish relationship is an important US interest. This is not, however, a positive development for a region in turmoil where both Israel and Turkey have been stirring up trouble.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict