Obama, Step Forward


Is Barack Obama, who is marking his mid-term as president, any different from his predecessors, except Dwight Eisenhower, as far as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is concerned?

There had been high expectations raised when he walked into the White House and after his triumphant trips overseas, especially to Cairo, that he will usher a new positive era in U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds, hopefully bringing a quick end to the 63-year-old conflict between Israelis and Arabs. His intimate acquaintance with prominent Arab-American intellectuals in his hometown, Chicago, and exposure to the other side of the coin have raised high hopes here and elsewhere in the Middle East that a fair settlement could imminent.

But to date he has turned out to be a great disappointment and the likelihood that he can still usher new thinking within his administration borders on wishful thinking, at least there are no signs yet that he may sidestep the pro-Israel lobby.

His latest disappointment came amidst the unprecedented roiling currently underway in the Arab world where two Arab leaders have just been overthrown, and several others are on the edge of another great precipice. For the first time, the United States was all alone vetoing a draft U.N. Security Council resolution condemning illegal Israeli expansion into Palestinian territories on the West Bank and, more significantly, Arab East Jerusalem where the Palestinians hope to establish their capital. Even Britain, France and Germany, key American allies, did not support the U.S. action, which was the tenth time since the year 2000 that the U.S. exercised its right to veto a U.N. resolution. Nine of those votes were in defense of Israel.

The three riled allies declared in a joint statement that they had voted for the resolution “because our views on (Israeli) settlements, including East Jerusalem, are clear: They are illegal under international law, an obstacle to peace, and constitute a threat to a two-state solution. All settlement activity, including East Jerusalem, should cease immediately.”

As expected, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyaho said his country “deeply appreciated” the U.S. use of its veto, entitled to the five permanent members of the U.N. apparently despite what U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, stressed that the U.S. action “should not be misunderstood to mean we support (Israeli) settlement activity.”

Along with the widespread Arab denunciation of the American action, there were several Israelis who shared the Arab disaffection. Gideon Levy, a prominent Israeli commentator, said the U.S. veto “is not friendly to Israel; it supports the settlers and the Israeli right, and them alone … a (settler) enterprise that is most damaging to Israel.”

Akiva Eldar wrote: “Thanks, Obama, for taking off the mask and showing us your real face. It is high time we took a look at ourselves in the mirror.”

The Obama administration’s U.N. action followed an important international security conference held in Herzliya, Israel, earlier this month where, Defense News reported that the “overwhelming consensus” was that “American influence in the (Middle East) region – or at least the perception of it – was in considerable decline.” The Israeli speakers did not hesitate to blame increasing threats to U.S. policy missteps.

Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, planning director on the Israel Defense Forces General staff, was quoted as saying that “this region will be influenced by Iran, Turkey and Israel.” Rafi Barak, director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, added surprisingly that Israel can no longer rely solely on its patron ally – the U.S. – and is exploring alternative alliances should a declining U.S. choose to turn its back on Israel. The former Israeli ambassador in Washington, Zalman Shoval, argued that the White House’s focus on Israeli expansion in the Israel-occupied Palestinian territories as the principal source for regional woes.

Retired U.S. Marine Gen. James Jones, who was Obama’s national security adviser until last October, dismissed claims of Washington’s decline. He went on to emphasize that Palestinian-Israeli peace process as “a matter or urgent necessity.” He argued that time is not on Israel’s side, warning that “the growing isolation of Israel is a very real concern. The number of countries that recognize a Palestinian state can outrank the number of countries that recognize Israel.”

Despite this give-and-take it is high time for the Obama administration to stop sitting on the fence and step forward, speaking loudly and clearly and stop worrying about its chances for a second term. He then will be assured a place in history. Whatever, the Palestinians, who will be marking their “day of rage” this Friday, are now planning another confrontation next September when they hope to apply for admission to the U.N. General Assembly. They feel certain that with the growing number of states, especially from South America, who are recognizing the state of Palestine along the 1967 borderline will make this step within reach.

George S Hishmeh

George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist.

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