Obama’s Israel-Palestinian policy: mostly the same; one big surprise

Yesterday I compared speeches by John McCain and Barack Obama on the subject of Israel.

Today, the day after locking in the Democratic nomination, Obama has made a speech about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to AIPAC. It does not break new ground, except in one very surprising sentence.

Obama, unfortunately, reiterates his commitment to the failing Annapolis process whose only result so far has been the arming of Fatah. There is no question in my mind that arms supplied under this program will end up being used against Israel, either by Fatah’s terrorist militias or by Hamas, as happened after the takeover of Gaza. Here’s what Obama said about this process, with some comments:

The Palestinian people must understand that progress will not come through the false prophets of extremism or the corrupt use of foreign aid. The United States and the international community must stand by Palestinians who are committed to cracking down on terror and carrying the burden of peacemaking.

One of the reasons that this process is failing is that the Abbas/Fayyad Palestinian Authority is emphatically not committed to (or capable of) “cracking down on terror”, nor are they ideologically in favor of a two-state solution other than as a stepping-stone to the elimination of Israel (see “The two-state fantasy“).

I will strongly urge Arab governments to take steps to normalize relations with Israel, and to fulfill their responsibility to pressure extremists and provide real support for President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. Egypt must cut off the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Israel can also advance the cause of peace by taking appropriate steps – consistent with its security – to ease the freedom of movement for Palestinians, improve economic conditions in the West Bank, and to refrain from building new settlements – as it agreed to with the Bush Administration at Annapolis.

Arab governments have consistently refused to truly normalize relations, even where a ‘peace’ treaty exists, because the ‘threat’ of Israel provides an excuse for holding back reform in their own countries. And they are quite happy for ‘extremists’ to fight Israel rather than try to overthrow their own oppressive regimes. Sure, Egypt should cut off weapons smuggling, but apparently either it is incapable of doing so or sees Hamas attacks on Israel as in its interest. Why should Obama’s ‘urging’ be capable of changing any of this?

Regarding the ‘Syrian track’, he says,

…success will require the full enforcement of Security Council Resolution 1701 in Lebanon, and a stop to Syria’s support for terror.

The problem with resolution 1701 (the resolution that ended the 2006 Lebanon War) is not that it is not enforced, it is that it is unenforceable. UN soldiers are simply not going to put their lives on the line to stop Hezbollah from rearming. And the Syrian regime, which exerts power in Lebanon through its support and alliance with Hezbollah, does not have an interest in changing this either. Obama’s words are intended to reassure, but they are just that — words.

Now we come to the big surprise. In talking about the ‘peace process’ and its goal, Obama said,

The Palestinians need a state that is contiguous and cohesive, and that allows them to prosper – but any agreement with the Palestinian people must preserve Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, with secure, recognized and defensible borders. Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided. [my emphasis]

The mention of a “Jewish state” is important, as I said yesterday. But the really big news is the last line. Does he really mean to say that

Undivided Jerusalem is the capital of Israel — something that the US Congress has affirmed, but that no US administration has accepted. Will the US embassy finally move to Jerusalem?

A peace agreement with the Palestinians must not divide Jerusalem along the 1967 lines — something that the Palestinians insist upon, and one of the major stumbling blocks for negotiations. Note that Obama could probably still say that he would approve of some Arab neighborhoods within the current municipal boundaries being transferred to the Palestinians, but this is a remarkable statement even in its minimal interpretation. Let’s hope he doesn’t backtrack.

Now, just one word about what he did not say. In the February 2008 speech that I discussed yesterday, he said this:

Israel has to remain a Jewish state and what I believe that means is that any negotiated peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is going to have to involve the Palestinians relinquishing the right of return as it has been understood in the past. And that doesn’t mean that there may not be conversations about compensation issues.

Much of the content of the two speeches is similar. Although he used the phrase “Jewish state”, why did he not mention “right of return” this time? The question is too important to be left as an implication.

Some of Obama’s pro-Palestinian supporters found the speech…depressing. “Jakartaman” at the Daily Kos called it “a new concession to the Zionist lobby“. I wish.

Update [1421 PDT]: After reading Shalom Freedman’s comment, I want to add the following:

I don’t intend this post as a criticism of Obama. I do not share the view of those who say that an Obama presidency will be a disaster for Israel. This is an American election for an American President, and Obama’s positions, as stated, are no worse than any that we have had from recent Presidents and candidates. Certainly President Bush, whatever his personal views (I believe they are strongly pro-Israel) has not been able to free his administration from its dangerous program of arming Fatah, nor turn the promises of his 2004 letters to Sharon into policy.

On the other hand, it’s hard to reconcile Obama’s  intention to withdraw from Iraq according to a fixed timetable with his desire to negotiate with Iran from a position of strength.

This is a very difficult time, the issues are many and complicated, and without a crystal ball, the decision is not easy.

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4 Responses to “Obama’s Israel-Palestinian policy: mostly the same; one big surprise”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    I think the finding of fault with Obama here is mistaken.
    I would look at his fundamental approach and the strong committment he made to the survival and security of Israel.
    In my opinion he does show a good grasp of most of the specifics. He is overly optimistic at certain points but that is true in relation to all the subjects he has to deal with.
    Frankly, my thought about him is something different.
    I believe Israel and its supporters must try to forge close ties with him. He represents to America, Change and Hope at a time America is struggling. He is young, dynamic, charismatic and seems to have a clear sense of what he is doing. I believe he is going to win.

  2. ME says:

    The Onus is on the International Community, the World, and America to thwart any nonsense from Iran and terrorist organizations that it supports. By the time all these ‘peace conversations’ are under way to appease everyone’s notions about how to walk on egg shells around lunatics, then the Ayatollahs, Achmadinejad and Hamas will have made more ground to fulfill their objectives to destroy Israel. Unless potential candidates can act realistically with respect to the Middle East, then their verbage is just that.

    Dear Friends,
    I have just read and signed the online petition:
    “Citizens for Destroying the Iranian Nuclear Facilities”
    hosted on the web by PetitionOnline.com, the free online petition
    service, at:
    I personally agree with what this petition says, and I think you might
    agree, too. If you can spare a moment, please take a look, and consider
    signing yourself.
    Best wishes,

  3. Anna says:

    Before anyone becomes too enamored of Barack Obama, read part of this interview with radical anti-Israel activist Ali Abunimah given to Democracy Now just a few months ago. Sen. Obama’s roots in politics aren’t with the Jews. He either lied to the Palestinians, or he’s lying to the Jews now.

    AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Chicago to Ali Abunimah, the co-founder of the online publication The Electronic Intifada, author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.

    AMY GOODMAN: Ali Abunimah, I wanted to ask you about the candidates in the United States. You’re speaking to us from Chicago, so let’s start with Barack Obama. The stances of the presidential Democratic and Republican candidates on the Israel-Palestine conflict. I can’t remember when in a debate they were asked about the mounting crisis there.

    ALI ABUNIMAH: I don’t know if they’ve been asked in a debate, but whenever they have been asked, they have all gone out of their way to express full support for what Israel is doing. Barack Obama is not distinguished from the rest of the pack, except by for how far he has moved to try to appease AIPAC and pro-Israel movements.

    I remember, Amy—I knew Barack Obama for many years as my state senator—when he used to attend events in the Palestinian community in Chicago all the time. I remember personally introducing him onstage in 1999, when we had a major community fundraiser for the community center in Deheisha refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. And that’s just one example of how Barack Obama used to be very comfortable speaking up for and being associated with Palestinian rights and opposing the Israeli occupation. And just yesterday, he apparently sent a letter to Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador at the UN, to urge the US not to allow any resolution to pass criticizing Israel and saying how Israel was forced to impose this barbaric medieval siege on Israel. [Link to Democracy Now here]

  4. Vic Rosenthal says:

    There’s another possibility: he’s changed his point of view since 1999.

    I have to give the candidate’s words today more weight than a comment by Ali Abunimah.