Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The latest from Ali Abunimah

The latest from Ali Abunimah...

What Obama missed in the Middle East

Barack Obama's visit to Israel and Palestine this week seemed
designed to appease pro-Israel groups in the US

By Ali Abunimah
23 July 2008

When I and other Palestinian-Americans first knew Barack
Obama in Chicago in the 1990s, he grasped the oppression
faced by Palestinians under Israeli occupation. He
understood that an honest broker cannot simultaneously be
the main cheerleader, financier and arms supplier for one
side in a conflict. He often attended Palestinian-American
community events and heard about the Palestinian
experience from perspectives stifled in mainstream

In recent months, Obama has sought to allay persistent
concerns from pro-Israel groups by recasting himself as a
stalwart backer of Israel and tacking ever closer to
positions espoused by the powerful, hard-line pro-Israel
lobby Aipac. He distanced himself from mainstream advisers
because pro-Israel groups objected to their calls for

Like his Republican rival, senator John McCain, Obama gave
staunch backing to Israel's 2006 bombing of Lebanon, which
killed over 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and the
blockade and bombardment of the Gaza Strip, calling them
"self defence".

Every aspect of Obama's visit to Palestine-Israel this
week has seemed designed to further appease pro-Israel
groups. Typically for an American aspirant to high office,
he visited the Israeli Holocaust memorial and the Western
Wall. He met the full spectrum of Israeli Jewish (though
not Israeli Arab) political leaders. He travelled to the
Israeli Jewish town of Sderot, which until last month's
ceasefire, frequently experienced rockets from the Gaza
Strip. At every step, Obama warmly professed his support
for Israel and condemned Palestinian violence.

Other than a cursory 45-minute visit to occupied Ramallah
to meet with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud
Abbas, Palestinians got little. According to an Abbas
aide, Obama provided assurances that he would be "a
constructive partner in the peace process." Some observers
took comfort in his promise that he would get engaged
"starting from the minute I'm sworn into office". Obama
remained silent on the issue of Jerusalem, after boldly
promising the "undivided" city to Israel as its capital in
a speech to Aipac last month, and then appearing to
backtrack amid a wave of outrage across the Arab world.
But Obama missed the opportunity to visit Palestinian
refugee camps, schools and even shopping malls to witness
first-hand the devastation caused by the Israeli army and
settlers, or to see how Palestinians cope under what many
call "apartheid". This year alone, almost 500
Palestinians, including over 70 children, have been killed
by the Israeli army - exceeding the total for 2007 and
dwarfing the two-dozen Israelis killed in conflict-related
violence. Obama said nothing about Israel's relentless
expansion of colonies on occupied land. Nor did he follow
the courageous lead of former President Jimmy Carter and
meet with the democratically elected Hamas leaders, even
though Israel negotiated a ceasefire with them. That such
steps are inconceivable shows how off-balance is the US
debate on Palestine.

Many people I talk to are resigned to the conventional
wisdom that aspiring national politicians cannot afford to
be seen as sympathetic to the concerns of Palestinians,
Arabs or Muslims. They still hope that, if elected, Obama
would display an even-handedness absent in the campaign.

Without entirely foreclosing the possibility of change in
US policy, the reality is that the political pressures
evident in a campaign do not magically disappear once the
campaign is over. Nor is all change necessarily for the
better. One risk is that a President Obama or President
McCain would just bring back the Clinton-era approach
where the United States effectively acted as "Israel's
lawyer", as Aaron David Miller, a 25-year veteran of the
US state department's Middle East peace efforts, memorably
put it. This led to a doubling of Israeli settlements in
the West Bank, an upsurge in violence and the failed 2000
Camp David summit where Clinton tried to pressure Arafat
into accepting a bantustan. A depressing feature of
Obama's visit was the prominent advisory role for Dennis
Ross, the official in charge of the peace process under
Clinton, and the founder of an Aipac-sponsored pro-Israel

Whoever is elected will face a rapidly changing situation
in Palestine-Israel. A number of shifts are taking place
simultaneously. First, the consensus supporting the
two-state solution is disintegrating as Israeli colonies
have rendered it unachievable. Second, the traditional
Palestinian national leadership is being eclipsed by new
movements including Hamas. And, as western and Arab
governments become more craven in the face of Israeli
human rights violations, a Palestinian-led campaign
modelled on the anti-apartheid strategy of boycott,
divestment and sanctions is building global civil society
support. Finally, the demographic shift in
Palestine-Israel toward an absolute Palestinian majority
in all of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip will be
complete in the next three to five years.

Making peace in this new reality will take leaders ready
to listen and talk to all sides in the conflict and to
consider alternatives to the moribund two-state solution,
such as power-sharing, confederation or a single
democratic state. It will require, above all, the courage,
imagination and political will to challenge the status quo
of Israeli domination and Palestinian dispossession that
has led to ever more violence with each passing year.

Ali Abunimah is the author of One Country: A Bold Proposal
to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and a fellow with
the Palestine Centre in Washington, DC.

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