Israel stunned by Obama's tough love
By Seema Sirohi
JERUSALEM - United States President Barack Obama's bold new rulebook for the
Middle East attempts a much-needed balance in a US foreign policy that has long
tilted in favor of one against the region's many.
Israel is no longer more equal than others, the Palestinians no longer a mere
backdrop and all evil does not emanate from the Arab world. Obama has changed
language and tone to break through the tough mythologies of the region,
calcified in years of failure to make peace.
He seems to want an honest engagement with the Muslim world and an honest
accounting of the Israeli conduct. Obama is sending signals to all the regional
players - from Syria to Iran, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, even Hamas - to begin
"unclench" fists. The new policy tries to level an uneven playing field on
which Israel has always won, no matter the contest or context.
Obama's decision to plunge headlong into the world's toughest region, to
resolve its most difficult conflict, is farsighted because success here can
multiply into success wherever Muslims live. To try to remove the most
persistent agenda item from the long list of grievances is a move laden with
possibilities, most of them positive.
By addressing the Middle East problem early in his administration, unlike his
two predecessors who paid attention to the festering wound only towards the end
of their terms, shows his seriousness and resolve to resuscitate the peace
process. Depending on how his partners - the Israelis, the Palestinians and
certain Arab countries - translate his plan, relations between the West and the
Islamic world could improve with wider implications on other fronts.
Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, advocating a separate state for
Palestine was a dramatic opening salvo, a frank admission of what needs to be
done. He equated Palestinian and Jewish suffering, speaking of the two peoples
in the same breath, something no other American president has done. He
humanized and elevated the Palestinians who have long languished in the
netherworld of neglected priorities of both the West and the Arab world.
Obama also loudly demanded an end to Jewish settlements in the occupied West
Bank as a prerequisite to restarting the peace process. A future Palestine
weighed down by illegal Jewish settlements is a recipe for more, not less,
conflict. It is also an issue where Israel has no cover - international law
bars any demographic changes in the occupied territories.
No wonder Washington's new stance has rattled the Israeli government, lit up
the Jewish blogosphere and made the religious right angry. Posters calling
Obama "anti-Semitic" and wearing the kaffiyeh (scarf) are being waved at
rallies in Jerusalem while YouTube videos filled with anti-Obama hate speech
That his middle name is "Hussein" has suddenly become a potent cry in Israel. A
recent poll indicated that 51% of Israelis think he is pro-Palestinian. Many
say he is pushing Israel to score "points with the Muslim world".
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, heading a right-wing coalition,
replied to Obama with his own "speech" trying to put limits on this new
American enterprise. Full of conditions and caveats, his short answer was "No,
you can't" to Obama's campaign pledge of "Yes, we can."
Netanyahu has been cold to the idea of Jerusalem as a shared capital of two
separate states. He refused to freeze settlements and referred to the occupied
territories by their Biblical names of Judea and Samaria. Although Netanyahu
uttered the word "Palestine" for the first time, he envisioned it as a state
without sovereign power, one that can not buy arms or control its own air
space. He demanded many promises and assurances from the Palestinians even
before negotiations began.
"He persuaded no one that he really intends to fight for peace. He did not lead
Israel to a new future. He only collaborated with its old, familiar anxieties,"
wrote David Grossman, an Israeli author and peace activist on the front-page of
Ha'aretz, a liberal newspaper. Palestinians have derided the speech as a
non-starter. Mustafa Barghouti, a moderate Palestinian MP, said Netanyahu's
speech endorsed "a ghetto", not a state. But Netanyahu's right-wing support has
While a future state is still down the line, the most immediate test for Obama
is the question of settlements. Will he compromise and allow what Israelis call
"natural growth" - expansion of already existing settlements? Palestinian
leaders and Arab governments say it is a litmus test for Obama.
According to researchers, nearly 300,000 Israelis live in 121 settlements in
the West Bank, occupying 35% of the land through an intricate system of
separate jurisdictions, security zones, schools, industrial areas and roads.
Palestinians are not allowed to enter these settlements or use the road
Former US president Jimmy Carter and others have called this apartheid, but
successive Israeli governments have encouraged, connived at and supported the
So far, the US Congress and the American Jewish community are behind Obama in
his attempt to invigorate the process. The Europeans support him as do liberal
Israelis who want a two-state solution.
If Obama gains momentum on this thorny issue, he can legitimately ask the Arab
states to make gestures towards peace - such as low-level trade with Israel and
tourism. He would also gain support for his policies in Afghanistan and
Pakistan if he could heal rifts with the Muslim world.
But equally, a public spat with Israel, if prolonged, could erode his own base
and unleash the power of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Can Obama and his
advisers realize their vision?
Seema Sirohi is a correspondent based in Jerusalem.