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With Israel, Obama Is Walking the High Wire With His Eyes Closed

The press called last week's Middle East visit a success, but everything could come crashing down in an instant.

| Tue Apr. 2, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

But despite that reality, Obama has once again proven remarkably incapable of forcing the Israelis into serious, good-faith negotiations with the Palestinians—mainly because he traveled to the Mideast with a stark reality in his pocket: the latest Gallup poll, showing American sympathy for Israel at an all-time high, while sympathy for the Palestinians has taken a nose-dive.

As always, pro-Israel attitudes are substantially stronger among Republicans than the rest of the US public. If Obama pushes the Israelis to make genuine concessions for peace, he'll give the GOP a huge opening to brand him as "soft on terrorists," a label he has done everything possible to avoid—including assassinating American citizens.

Given that implicit pressure (and the degree to which all presidential travels abroad are also little dramas made for domestic consumption), Obama promptly endorsed an Israeli myth of particular power: the myth of its national insecurity. Even in his Jerusalem peace speech he repeated the mantra that Israel's security "can never be taken for granted" because Israel "is surrounded by many in this region who reject it, and many in the world who refuse to accept it."

In the next breath, he contradicted the very premise of the myth of an eternally endangered, on-the-brink-of-being-wiped-out country by stating the obvious: "Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel's right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere." But he carefully ignored that fundamental reality during the rest of his visit, masking it behind a torrent of rhetoric about supposedly dire threats to Israel's existence from every direction.

Most Americans already assume that Israel is as imperiled as it claims to be. The more Obama reinforces that myth, the more sympathy he builds for Israel and the less Israeli leaders have to respond to pressure on negotiations with the Palestinians. And as long as most Americans mistakenly see Israelis, not Palestinians, as the besieged victims of the present situation, they'll punish any president who puts real pressure on Israel to make a just peace. No president, not even in a second term, is likely to risk paying that price.

Palestinian Realities Ignored

Even if Obama did try to force a peace agreement on the Israelis, the effort would be doomed to fail, because he excluded from his fantasy world two crucial realities about Palestine.

First, he treated the main roadblock to peace—the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank—as if it hardly existed. Far from renewing his demand for an end to expansion, he fell back on the vague language we've heard from many presidents before: "We do not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive"; "Settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace." He even stood alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and called the settlements merely an "irritant," a poor "excuse" to avoid coming to the peace table, more or less demanding that Abbas return to negotiations while Palestinian land continues to be eaten up, bit by bit.

In effect, Obama pressured the Palestinians to accept a real evil in the present for the sake of some hypothetical good in a hard-to-imagine future. Though that may make sense to the president, the Palestinian Authority understandably sees it as senseless to enter prolonged negotiations that would simply give Israel a green light and more time to gobble up Palestinian land.

Obama's other glaring omission was his refusal to visit Gaza and meet its prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, of the ruling Hamas party. In his peace speech, Obama explicitly called on Israel to negotiate only with the Palestinian Authority, which rules in the West Bank, dismissing Hamas with the usual false picture: "Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with anyone who is dedicated to its destruction."

In fact, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has been saying for years that his party is ready for a long-term truce that would, de facto, accept the existence of Israel inside its pre-1967 borders. These are, of course, the very borders Obama himself has called for as the basis for a final status agreement. In recent talks with the king of Jordan, Meshaal reportedly made his most explicit statement yet accepting such a two-state solution.

The only realistic hope for peace is to encourage this growing moderation in Hamas, which would open the way to a unified Hamas-Fatah government. The idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank alone, living happily side by side with Israel, while an impoverished and ignored Gaza somehow doesn't cause trouble for anyone, is an impossible fantasy.

But the Obama administration and the Israeli government prefer such a fantasy world in which there's simply no place for a conciliatory Hamas policy, because the globe must always be divided between "the international community" and a threatening "radical Islam," its banner held high by Hamas as well as Lebanon's Hezbollah movement and the greatest threat of all: Iran.

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