The “Obama supported Palestine” myth

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Peter Beinart, the slavish devotee of Barack Obama, is already shedding tears for his leaving office. In an article about how he’ll “miss Obama” because of the current US Presidential candidates’ views on Palestinians, he claimed the US President was “radical” because “he admits Palestinians have any rights at all.”

He claims everyone should miss Obama, because Obama was truly connected to Jews who are critical of Israel. “The shocking part is Hillary Clinton. Obama and Clinton encountered Jews and Israel in very different ways. Before Obama began dealing with AIPAC, he had already forged close bonds to Jews like Newton Minow, who gave him his first legal job; Abner Mikva, who offered him a judicial clerkship; Bettylu Saltzman and Marilyn Katz, who organized the 2002 rally where he denounced the war in Iraq; Arnold Wolf, the rabbi at the synagogue across the street from his house; and David Axelrod, his longtime political consultant.”  Hillary Clinton by contrast, we are told, is closer to the “Jewish establishment” and AIPAC.

At the heart of this story is a Jewish dispute between the critical Jewish voices, many of them liberal Zionist types, around Obama, and the “Jewish establishment” around Hillary Clinton and others.

Now back to Obama.  In 2008 when Obama was elected, many expected him to make a radical break with American policy on Israel.  He was accused of having “PLO friends” including Rashid Khalidi and other “radical left” Jewish activists, who disliked Israel. “Allies of Palestinians” saw a friend in Obama, the public was told. Obama had a “radical anti-Israel past.”  Israelis who oppose Israel’s policies, flocked to Obama.  They called on him to pressure Israel, force Israel to leave the West Bank, save Israel from itself. But by August 2009 they were saying that the “latest hope” was dead. Palestinians who thought Obama would “bring Israel to heel” were also dismayed.

But they didn’t give up hope.  “Please pressure us,” Israeli radical leftists argued. the special envoy of Middle East Peace from 2009 to 2011, George Mitchell, resigned without bringing peace.  But many voices looked to Obama’s second term, when the “real” Obama would emerge.  Now he would force Israel to make peace and withdraw.  Tony Blair’s “peace” mission came and went.  General Dayton came and went. Salam Fayyad came and went.  But still Obama could “empower” Palestine.

Then comes the spring of 2016.  The voices are still waiting for the “real” Obama to emerge.  Despite the supposedly unprecedented “historic low” of US-Israel relations, the “crises” in the relations brought about by Netanyahu’s bad relationship with Obama, where was the “real” Obama?  Every year the voices came out predicting this was the year Obama would no longer use the veto at the UN to defend Israel. 2014.  2015.  Wait, 2016, this will be the year Obama sides with the French peace plan and finally stands up to Israel?

The fundamental flaw in this narrative has been the constant misreading of Barack Obama.  Before his election, then Senator Obama visited Israel in 2006 and then visited Israel again in 2008.  He went to Sderot where he gave a speech against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  He visited the Western Wall, the most holy site in Judaism and put a note in the Wall.  He made a brief stop in Ramallah. As President he returned in 2013. Photos showed the reality of Obama’s visit.  It had nothing to do with Palestinians.  It was a visit about Israel. When he arrived on Wednesday he smiled in front of an Iron Dome battery, met Israeli youth, went to the President’s resident and met the Prime Minister.

Then on Thursday he went to Ramallah for official meetings, and a brief visit to an al-Bireh youth center before speak “to the Israeli people” at a massive auditorium in Jerusalem. He also visited the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The next day he went to Yad Vashem and to the grave of Theodor Herzl. Then he made a brief visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

When one reads Obama’s statements on Israel, all of them come from the “tough-love” position of supporting “what is best” for Israel.  Consider the 2012 statement about “advancing Israel’s security.” It was all about securing and strengthening Israel. It was about “people to people” relationships with the US.  A May 19, 2011 speech explained “that a peace agreement must meet the needs of both sides, including by:  ending the conflict and resolving all claims, achieving the goal of two states for two peoples with Israel as a Jewish state and homeland for the Jewish people, achieving secure and recognized borders for both sides, and devising robust security arrangements that will not leave Israel vulnerable.”

Obama’s speech to the Adas Israel synagogue came from the same viewpoint.  He gave a brief interview before the speech where he laid out similar concepts. He claimed that his was position was one “that is consistent with being supportive of the State of Israel and the Jewish people….you can’t equate people of good will who are concerned about those issues with somebody who is hostile towards Israel…I’ve got Israel’s back.” This was a President who came at the Israel issue from a Jewish viewpoint, a very liberal Zionist one, but primarily a Jewish one.  The way Bill Clinton was the first African-American president, one could say that Obama was in some ways the first Jewish president and his values relating to Israel reflected that.

His view is probably more Israelo-centric than any President in US history and he predicates his support on the need to defend Israel from itself.  This dovetails well with both the Liberal Zionist and Israeli left-wing Zionist positions.  The view is that the “problem” with Israel’s control of the West Bank is not about the Palestinians but what it does to Israel.  Palestinians are said to represent a demographic issue for Israel, there are “too many” people without citizenship.  It hurts Israel’s image, it is not good for Israel, in order for Israel to fulfill it’s role in the world, it must end this policy.  It’s not about what happens to the Palestinians and their rights. Unlike the values of American history and “inalienable” rights, this is not about rights and a dialogue of rights.

On Jerusalem, for instance, Obama appeared to reverse years of US official support for a divided Jerusalem and the capital of two states when he said in 2008 at AIPAC that “Jerusalem must remain undivided [i.e in Israel’s hands] and the capital of Israel.” As President Obama went to Cairo and gave a speech where he noted:

“On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years, they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. [Americans] will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.” 

He seemed to back that up in 2011 at the UN:

“One year ago, I stood at this podium and I called for an independent Palestine. I believed then, and I believe now, that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said is that a genuine peace can only be realized between the Israelis and Palestinians themselves.” –Obama, 2011 UN addressScreen Shot 2016-02-04 at 2.22.57 PM

So what to make of all of it?  Some want to believe Obama’s last months in office will see the “real” Obama emerge who will support Palestinians.  The real Obama disappeared years ago, like in the Count of Monte Cristo where Edmond Dantes is sent to the island and his wife later says that he “died” there.  The “real” Obama died years before being elected.  What remains is something else entirely when it comes to Palestinians.

The US administration has given up hope for a peace deal.  They have continually portrayed themselves as the canary in the gold mine, warning Israel that it is entering uncharted waters, that an absence of a peace deal hurts Israel more than Palestine.  Time is not on Israel’s side John Kerry has intimated.  Israel is a successful state that wants integration into Europe and the threat of the “one state” reality plagues it, says the administration in so many words. They also claim the Palestinian Authority could collapse. This could mean unending war, chaos and harm to Israel.  But Israelis see the administration as the most hostile in thirty years.  Israelis mostly believe time is on their side.  Even those who don’t like opposition leader Isaac Herzog, have presented new plans to John Kerry outlining a new disengagement and separation.  Discussing Jerusalem, whose Arab residents never had a choice in being annexed, he seems to now want to jettison them, once again without giving them a choice. Control but no binationalism. Sort of like Gaza.  America feels it is propping up Israel’s security by funding the PA and security forces. But other US educational initiatives have declined. US AID builds roads around Israel’s communities, but it too tires of the work.

In the end Obama will leave.  He wasn’t pro-Palestine.  He may have truly been pro-Israel. Or he was just short-sighted and unwilling to make real decisions.

 

 

 

 

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