One of Barack Obama’s first acts as the Democratic Presidential Nominee was to pledge his support for Israel to the AIPAC convention: “Let me be clear: Israel’s security is sacrosanct. It is non-negotiable. As president I will implement a Memorandum of Understanding that provides $30 billion in assistance to Israel over the next decade – investments to Israel’s security that will not be tied to any other nation.” Furthermore he assured his audience that as President, he “will never compromise when it comes to Israel’s security.”
That Mr Obama’s comments are an obvious attempt to attract and secure the votes and support of the influential Jewish lobby is not controversial. The Forward recently reported that Jewish donations account for as much as 40% of Democratic campaign funds. Indeed, it would be a foolhardy presidential candidate that neglected to make public his support for Israel. However, much can be read into the content of Obama’s speech – which garnered thirteen standing ovations – despite its obvious deference to the body at which it was aimed. As his first speech since defeating Hilary Clinton, Obama undoubtedly knew how widely it would be reported, and analysed, given his perceived inexperience in foreign policy.
What was left unsaid is perhaps as revealing as what was said. “Let me be clear: Israel’s security is sacrosanct. It is non-negotiable. 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.” The security of the Palestinians is, quite obviously, not sacrosanct, and is by implication negotiable. Israel has a superpower fighting its corner; the Palestinians do not.
That the US favours one over the other isn’t news by any stretch of the imagination – last year President Bush announced a gargantuan $30bn arms deal with Israel (along with $13bn for Egypt and around $20bn to be shared between other friendly regimes in the region). However, Obama is widely viewed as a relatively progressive candidate – compared to the current President – and many commentators undoubtedly harboured hopes that his Middle East policy might be rather more pragmatic in character, especially given his previously stated openness to dialogue with Iranian authorities. Obama’s pledge of $30bn in investments to Israeli security seems squarely to accord with the unwavering support his predecessors have offered. Compare Obama’s proposed arms deal, which constitutes $3bn annually, to US aid to the Palestinians, which last year amounted to $127m, and it adds considerable weight to his assertion that he “will never compromise when it comes to Israel’s security.”
The question of Jerusalem was also addressed. “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” This statement attracted widespread criticism, not least from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who reiterated his view that a Palestinian state without Jerusalem as its capital would be unacceptable. Moreover it seemed like a stark dismissal of both Israeli and Palestinian self-determination. Responding to his critics on CNN, Obama softened slightly, admitting that “it’s going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues.” His opponent John McCain broadly agrees, stating: “the subject of Jerusalem itself will be addressed in negotiations by the Israeli government and people.” Notice, the Palestinians have no seat at this hypothetical negotiating table.
Finally, Mr. Obama pledged to “ensure that Israel could defend itself from any threat – from Gaza to Tehran.” This means the US will continue to bankroll one of the most advanced military machines on the planet, and there is little doubt that Israel is prepared to flex its military (and nuclear) muscle against actual or perceived belligerence from its neighbours. Israeli transportation minister Shaoul Mofaz recently made it very clear that “if Iran continues its nuclear arms program, we will attack it.” The following day, Infrastructure minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer echoed his aggression: “we must tell them: ‘If you so much as dream of attacking Israel, before you even finish dreaming there won’t be an Iran anymore.'”
Obama’s promise also suggests that under his leadership, the US will also continue to veto any resolution in the UN Security Council that attempts to criticise Israeli actions or policy, in accordance with the Negroponte doctrine. This has been a defining feature of US conduct in the security council for the last 20 years. Indeed, since 1989, the US has been the sole dissenting vote on ten security council resolutions pertaining to the Israel/Palestine conflict. This loyalty seems unlikely to change given Obama’s stated intention never to compromise on questions of Israel’s security. The only concession Obama demanded of Israel was as follows: “Israel can ease the freedom of movement for Palestinians, improve economic conditions in the West Bank, and refrain from building new settlements.” Note, ‘Israel can’. Not ‘Israel must’, or even ‘Israel should’, but ‘Israel can’.
So, it seems that despite the relatively progressive nature of Obama’s candidacy, the status quo of the Israel/Palestine conflict will remain largely the same, in terms of the decisive political, financial and military support the US will apportion. From Israel’s point of view, this continuation of the current status quo is more than acceptable. Rockets and suicide terrorism are part of the current status quo and are of course atrocious, but the prevailing state of affairs seems to be one in which Israel can continue to expand settlements, and can annex land using the security fence (deemed illegal by the UN). This facilitates the all-important ‘facts on the ground’, which will be crucial if a peace agreement is ever reached. Until the Palestinians can rely on a similarly generous superpower as an unwavering ally, the intractable stalemate will surely remain.
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This post was written by Tom Bangay