Thursday, November 6, 2008

Why Supporters of Palestinian Rights Worry about the New Obama Administration

Just before the election, I posted Ralph Nader's rather excoriating (and probably unfair) letter to Barack Obama regarding his recent statements about and recent visit to Israel and the Middle East; I got a couple of responses regarding the untimeliness of the letter, its rather self-congratulatory tone, and its factual errancy. Ali Abunimah's commentary about Obama's pick of Rahm Emmanuel as Chief of Staff underscores the concerns and fears that Palestinian rights activists feel about Obama's vision. There are moments of insinuation in this analysis that are frankly unfair, but they shed light on the real difficulties of navigating the fraught waters of the peace process ahead for Obama.

Obama picks pro-Israel hardliner for top post

Ali Abunimah

The Electronic Intifada
5 November 2008

During the United States election campaign, racists and
pro-Israel hardliners tried to make an issue out of
President-Elect Barack Obama's middle name, Hussein. Such
people might take comfort in another middle name, that of
Obama's pick for White House Chief of Staff: Rahm Israel

Emanuel is Obama's first high-level appointment and it's
one likely to disappointment those who hoped the
president-elect would break with the George W. Bush
Administration's pro-Israel policies. White House Chief of
Staff is often considered the most powerful office in the
executive branch, next to the president. Obama has offered
Emanuel the position according to Democratic party sources
cited by media sources including Reuters and The New York
Times. While Emanuel is expected to accept the post, that
had not been confirmed by Wednesday evening the day after
the election.

Rahm Emanuel was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1959, the
son of Benjamin Emanuel, a pediatrician who helped smuggle
weapons to the Irgun, the Zionist militia of former
Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, in the 1940s. The
Irgun carried out numerous terrorist attacks on
Palestinian civilians including the bombing of Jerusalem's
King David Hotel in 1946.

Emanuel continued his father's tradition of active support
for Israel; during the 1991 Gulf War he volunteered to
help maintain Israeli army vehicles near the Lebanon
border when southern Lebanon was still occupied by Israeli

As White House political director in the first Clinton
administration, Emanuel orchestrated the famous 1993
signing ceremony of the "Declaration of Principles"
between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime
minister Yitzhak Rabin. Emanuel was elected to Congress
representing a north Chicago district in 2002 and he is
credited with a key role in delivering a Democratic
majority in the 2006 mid-term elections. He has been a
prominent supporter of neoliberal economic policies on
free trade and welfare reform.

One of the most influential politicians and fundraisers in
his party, Emanuel accompanied Obama to a meeting of
AIPAC's executive board just after the Illinois senator
had addressed the pro-Israel lobby's conference last June.

In Congress, Emanuel has been a consistent and vocal
pro-Israel hardliner, sometimes more so than President
Bush. In June 2003, for example, he signed a letter
criticizing Bush for being insufficiently supportive of
Israel. "We were deeply dismayed to hear your criticism of
Israel for fighting acts of terror," Emanuel, along with
33 other Democrats wrote to Bush. The letter said that
Israel's policy of assassinating Palestinian political
leaders "was clearly justified as an application of
Israel's right to self-defense."

In July 2006, Emanuel was one of several members who
called for the cancellation of a speech to Congress by
visiting Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki because
al-Maliki had criticized Israel's bombing of Lebanon.
Emanuel called the Lebanese and Palestinian governments
"totalitarian entities with militias and terrorists acting
as democracies" in a 19 July 2006 speech supporting a
House resolution backing Israel's bombing of both
countries that caused thousands of civilian victims.

Emanuel has sometimes posed as a defender of Palestinian
lives, though never from the constant Israeli violence
that is responsible for the vast majority of deaths and
injuries. On 14 June 2007 he wrote to US Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice "on behalf of students in the Gaza
Strip whose future is threatened by the ongoing fighting
there" which he blamed on "the violence and militancy of
their elders." In fact, the fighting between members of
Hamas and Fatah, which claimed dozens of lives, was the
result of a failed scheme by US-backed militias to
violently overthrow the elected Hamas-led national unity
government. Emanuel's letter urged Rice "to work with
allies in the region, such as Egypt and Jordan, to either
find a secure location in Gaza for these students, or to
transport them to a neighboring country where they can
study and take their exams in peace." Palestinians often
view such proposals as a pretext to permanently "transfer"
them from their country, as many Israeli leaders have
threatened. Emanuel has never said anything in support of
millions of Palestinian children whose education has been
disrupted by Israeli occupation, closures and blockades.

Emanuel has also used his position to explicitly push
Israel's interests in normalizing relations with Arab
states and isolating Hamas. In 2006 he initiated a letter
to President Bush opposing United Arab Emirates
(UAE)-based Dubai Ports World's attempt to buy the
management business of six US seaports. The letter, signed
by dozens of other lawmakers, stated that "The UAE has
pledged to provide financial support to the Hamas-led
government of the Palestinian Authority and openly
participates in the Arab League boycott against Israel."
It argued that allowing the deal to go through "not only
could place the safety and security of US ports at risk,
but enhance the ability of the UAE to bolster the Hamas
regime and its efforts to promote terrorism and violence
against Israel" ("Dems Tie Israel, Ports," Forward, 10
March 2006).

Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish
Democratic Council, told Fox News that picking Emanuel is
"just another indication that despite the attempts to
imply that Obama would somehow appoint the wrong person or
listen to the wrong people when it comes to the US-Israel
relationship ... that was never true."

Over the course of the campaign, Obama publicly distanced
himself from friends and advisers suspected or accused of
having "pro-Palestinian" sympathies. There are no early
indications of a more balanced course.

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is
author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-
Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006).

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Chaerephon said...

I remain concerned about the prospective policies of the Obama Administration re: the Middle East/Israel. The right-wing buzzwords flying around, and Emanuel's well-known stridency on the issue, do not augur well. It's upsetting that Obama would choose someone with Emanuel's views to be a close adviser.

But the chief-of-staff position to which Emanuel has been appointed is not traditionally a policymaking position, and I can't recall a lot of furor over Leon Panetta or John Podesta pushing the Clinton administration's policies one way or the other. I suppose that each administration can define the position's responsibilities in different ways, and maybe the level of influence exerted has more to do with the individual personalities involved.

It's hard to say at this point what kind of damage Emanuel can do. I also think that the Bush Admin. has set peace efforts so far back that even a return to middling, semi-futile peace talks (of the kind that Emanuel himself has helped facilitate previously) might be welcome.

Philip Metres said...

JJ, I agree with you about the position and its policy-influence, and I also believe that Abunimah might be overreacting a little. My euphoria over Obama's election is tempered not as much by this choice as by the monumental challenges ahead, which would leave some thorny international issues to grow thornier.

Back to dancing girls and rawk.