Even the Romans never saw a game like this in their arena: three gladiators fighting against each other, while at the same time each of them has to defend himself against attackers from behind.
All three of them – Barack Obama, Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas – are fighting for their political life. The three battles are quite different from each other, yet interconnected.
Obama is in big trouble. Big? Huge! The most important struggle concerns health insurance.
This has no connection with Israel. Moreover, for an Israeli it is difficult even to understand it.
For us it is hard – indeed impossible – to grasp how a modern, progressive country can function without health insurance for all. Our health system came into being long before the foundation of the State of Israel. Sick funds covered practically the whole Jewish population in Palestine. After the foundation of Israel, this became law for all citizens. Every Israeli is insured by one of four officially recognized sick funds. All of these are financed to a large extent by the government, which also decides what services they are obliged to provide.
In a progressive society, a person has a right to basic medical care, including hospital care, operations and medicines. So it seems very odd that in the richest nation in the world there are tens of millions of people who lack this essential protection. Especially in a country where medical expenditure – as a percentage of the gross national product – is far higher then in ours.
Along comes Obama and proposes a plan that offers these people an option of governmental medical insurance. What could be more natural? But in the US, powerful forces are out to prevent it, on behalf of Free Enterprise, the Market, the Right to Privacy and such high-sounding pretexts. They portray Obama as a Second Hitler or a Second Stalin, if not both, and his popularity is sinking dramatically.
Odd? Mad? Perhaps. But we have to take it seriously. It concerns us directly.
Because Obama is a central actor in our own play.
When he came to power, he understood that he must change the situation in the extended Middle East. Most Muslims in the world, including most Arabs, hate the United States. Even an imperial power cannot function effectively in an atmosphere of general hatred. The main reason for the hatred is the unlimited US support for the government of Israel, which oppresses the Palestinians.
For eight years, President Bill Clinton acted as an agent of the Jewish lobby for Israel. After that, for another eight years, President George W. Bush acted as an agent of the Christian fundamentalist lobby for Israel. President Obama understands that basic US interests demand an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is poisoning the entire region.
The war in Afghanistan makes it even worse. Obama got stuck in this quagmire by mistake: in the heat of the election campaign he announced that he would withdraw from Iraq. But in order not to be accused of defeatism, he added that he would intensify the American intervention in Afghanistan.
That was a rash promise. Afghanistan is far worse than even Iraq. It is a different war, in a different environment, against a different enemy. The US has no chance of “winning” this war, which has no clear aim and no clear enemy, against a population that since antiquity has been honing its expertise in expelling foreign invaders.
It is easy to walk into a swamp, difficult to get out of it. Obama has no exit strategy from Afghanistan. That, too, will endanger his popularity in the near future.
This is the situation in which he enters the struggle with Binyamin Netanyahu.
There no question anymore that the only recipe for healing the Israeli-Palestinian wound is the termination of the occupation and the establishment of peace between the State of Israel and the new State of Palestine beside it. This demands meaningful and intense negotiations, within a fixed time span. That is impossible if at the same time settlements continue to expand. As the Palestinian lawyer Michael Tarasi aptly put it: “We are negotiating about the division of a pizza and in the meantime Israel is eating the pizza.”
That’s why Obama has presented the Israeli government with an unequivocal demand: an immediate stop to all building in the settlements, including East Jerusalem. A clear and logical demand. But while pressuring Netanyahu, he himself is exposed to heavy pressure at home over the health insurance system and the Afghan war.
Netanyahu’s situation is no less complex.
His government is based on a coalition of five different parties. The settlers and their supporters constitute a majority. The “leftist” in this coalition, Ehud Barak, has been responsible for setting up more settlements than Netanyahu himself ever has.
Netanyahu is dancing on a thin tightrope at the Israeli fair, high above the heads of the audience, without a safety net. He must avoid a head on clash with Obama, while satisfying the nationalists in his own party and his coalition.
How to do this? One has to convince Obama to allow a small amount of building in the settlements, just another tiny bit, in order to appease the settlers. One has to convince the settlers that the promise to freeze building is just window dressing, and that in reality building will continue at full speed.
The Americans recognize, of course, that our government is trying to deceive them. If they allow the building of just another 500 houses in the settlement blocks, and the completion of just another 2500 houses whose construction has already begun, and just a few more in East Jerusalem, in practice the building will go on unchecked.
The settlers know perfectly well that their whole enterprise has been based on deceit and trickery, house after house and neighborhood after neighborhood, and they are happy to allow Netanyahu to continue with this method. For the time being, they do not cry out, they are not worried, the more so as no large Israeli public movement has yet arisen in support of Obama’s peace efforts.
Obama’s troubles concerning the health issue look to Netanyahu like the answer to a prayer. Perhaps he is not satisfied with divine help alone, and the pro-Israel lobby is quietly helping the enemies of reform. If Obama’s people decide that the time is not ripe for a confrontation with Netanyahu and that it is worth giving in about small matters – some houses here, some houses there – that would be a huge victory for Netanyahu. Every Israeli will see it this way: Netanyahu stood up like a man, Obama blinked first. But thereafter, in the second and third battle, when Obama insists and does not give in, neither in word nor in deed, Netanyahu will be in trouble.
Mahmoud Abbas is the weakest of the three gladiators. His situation is the most precarious.
He is on a slippery slope and has to rely on support from Obama, who himself stands atop a tower that may collapse. He has already learned that Netanyahu does not intend to conduct real negotiations with him. And Hamas accuses him of collaboration with the occupation.
West Bank public opinion polls seem to show that the popularity of Fatah there is on the rise and that Hamas is losing. But polls in Palestine can almost be counted on to be wrong (as on the eve of the last elections, when they forecast a huge Fatah victory). More than a thousand Hamas militants are in the prisons of the Palestinian Authority. The Authority’s security services, which are being trained by the American general Keith Dayton, are working in close cooperation with the occupation forces and serve, quite openly, as their sub-contractors. What does the ordinary Palestinian in the street think about that?
Life in the occupied West Bank is built on an illusion. Commentators praise the success of the PA’s Prime Minister, Salaam Fayad, in reconstructing the Palestinian economy. Ramallah is flowering. New businesses are being opened. Netanyahu’s “economic peace” is becoming a reality. But that is, of course, a delicate bubble: the Israeli army can eradicate all this in half an hour, as it did in the 2002 “Defensive Shield” operation.
If Abbas does not succeed in achieving impressive progress towards peace within a few months, the whole structure may come crashing down. General Dayton has already warned that if peace is not achieved “within two years”, the forces now being trained by him may rise up against the Israeli occupation (and against Abbas, of course). Hamas is breathing heavily down their necks.
In a few days, the three – Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas – are supposed to hold a summit conference in New York and to launch the Ship of Peace.
It will be an interesting meeting – if it takes place – because each of the three will be sitting on a wobbly stool, with unequal legs. While talking with his two colleagues, each will be preoccupied with his enemies at home.
That is not, of course, an unusual situation. Henry Kissinger once said that Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic policy. But that is more or less true for every country. The United States, Israel and Palestine are not unique in this respect.
Commentators in ivory towers, who are used to handling out gratuitous advice to political leaders and telling them what to do, frequently miss this dimension. A person who has never experienced the heat of an election campaign cannot come near to understanding the full depths of a politician’s motives. In the words of Otto von Bismarck, a politician through and through: “Politics is the art of the possible”.
How to move the peace efforts back from the realm of the impossible? In this campaign, the Israeli peace camp has a double task: first, to expose the policy of evasion and deceit of our government; and, second, to strengthen Obama’s hand in his endeavor to bring peace to this region. It is important that a strong and authentic Israeli camp express support for his efforts. Our friends in the US, in Europe and throughout the entire world have a similar task.
This three-sided struggle is not taking place in a Roman arena, and we are not just spectators looking on from the terraces. At stake in this game is nothing less than our lives.
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This post was written by Uri Avnery