As early as during his first day in office, the American President Obama has sought to indicate his concern with finding a solution to the Palestinian issue. His appointment of George Mitchell as a special envoy to the Middle East was a significant indicator in that respect. But Obama’s coming to presidency was not possible, had he not voted always for “Israel” during his term in the Congress; and given all forms of assurances and guarantees requested by “Israel”. Obama’s circle of consultants and advisors includes many well-known pro-Zionists. For many, Obama might have been more keen and sensitive in providing the Israeli requirements to further assure his detachment from his African and Muslim roots. Thus implied, Obama is headed for direct and urgent engagement in the Arab-Israeli Conflict, but on the basis of favoring the Israelis, and with consultants, approaches and procedures that have been used previously by his precedents and failed.
Obama recognizes that any solution that might satisfy the minimal requirements of a Palestinian and Arab approval, requires him to extensively pressure the Israelis, and that would lead to him confronting with the strong and influential Zionist Israeli Lobby in the United States (US), with the latter’s powerful economic and media tools. Hence, Obama currently doesn’t have much to decide upon or act.
On Wednesday, 21/1/2009, one day after his official inauguration as a president of the United States of America, Obama contacted a number of Middle Eastern leaders. Obama’s step was meant to assure his administration’s will to further establish the cease fire decision reached after the Israeli war on Gaza Strip (GS), and to create a monitoring mechanism that undermines Hamas’s ability to smuggle arms, and to rebuild what was destroyed during the war in collaboration with the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah. Additionally, Obama asserted that his administration is committed to direct involvement in peace process between the Palestinians and “Israel”.
These contacts were the first action to break the policy of silence that Obama adopted towards the Israeli–Palestinian conflict during the 77-days long transitional period between two presidencies in the United States (US). They were also the first official action towards the conflict after the Israeli aggressions on GS.
Except for the statement that expressed Obama’s deep worries for the civilian casualties on both Israeli and Palestinian side, Obama remained silent during the 22 days of the Israeli aggressions on Gaza, arguing that this silence is necessary for the US to have a unified position. At that time, Obama and many of his spokes persons asserted that he had much to say after his inauguration.
Obama’s rush, since his first day in presidency, to involve directly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, revealed the importance that the new administration will give to this issue and its priority on its crowded agenda.
Significant also in this respect, was the appointment of George Mitchell as a special envoy to the Middle East. Mitchell is known for his realism, pragmatism and serious hard work, and for disregarding ideological judgment. One of his major achievements was in April 1989, when Mitchell successfully brokered an agreement between the British government and North Ireland government, putting an end to a long history of conflict between both parties.
After the start of al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, Mitchell was appointed by former American president, Bill Clinton, as the head of a special investigative committee about the reasons of the Inifada and its contextual backgrounds, and to make recommendations on how to get out of this “cycle of violence”. In 2001, Mitchell presented his report to George W. Bush, the newly elected president then. Mitchell’s report demanded that the PA stops incitement to violence and put an end to it; while from “Israel” it only demanded freezing all settlement building activities in the West Bank (WB).
Obama’s intention to appoint George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East, raised the concerns of some of the Israeli lobby leaders in the US. Although throughout his 15 years as a senator of Maine, Mitchell was a pro-Israel politician, they still doubt that Mitchell’s pragmatism might consist a real challenge to “Israel” in the US. For example, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti Defamation League (ADL), stated to the “Jewish Week” in 21/1/2009, that Mitchell “has been meticulously even handed”. Thus the Jewish organizations are concerned about Mitchell’s balanced stances as a special envoy to the Middle East, afraid of him not being completely biased to “Israel”.
Obama’s pledges during his electoral campaign to act quickly and directly to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process after his election, then converting his pledges to real actions one day after his elections, indicate that the new president is seeking for a glory that the three of his predecessors, George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush failed to achieve. The three mentioned American presidents sought to achieve an Israeli–Palestinian agreement, which establishes a Palestinian state, regardless of its nature and implications; and integrate “Israel” with its regional surrounding to live in peace and security. But none of the three was lucky enough to reach such agreement, and this was primarily due to Israel’s policies that aborted all American efforts in this context, while the consecutive American administrations on the other hand, didn’t have a real political determination to pressure “Israel”, except for George Bush’s pressures on Iitzhak Shamir government to attend Madrid conference in 1991 under the threat of freezing US aid to “Israel”. Some experts argue that these pressures contributed, in one way or another, in Bush’s loss of the presidential elections in 1992 They also argue that these pressures were utilized by “Israel” to deter any similar American pressures in the future.
If this was the case; the question is how could Obama deal with this complicated issue, when decision making circles in the US realize that making any breakthrough in the Middle East peace process requires “painful” Israeli concessions? Add to that; Obama stated in his inaugural speech that he is willing to adopt a new policy in dealing with the Islamic world, built on “mutual respect”, but how could Obama reshape the American- Islamic relations without reaching a just settlement to the Palestinian issue? Especially that there is a kind of consensus on the fact that the Palestinian issue is the key to any future stability in the region, and to launch new American Islamic relations built on “mutual respect”.
To answer both questions it is necessary to present a background on the changes in Obama’s views and approach to this issue.
After securing his status as the Democratic Party’s candidate for the presidential elections, Obama shifted towards dismissing all doubts aroused by his competitors, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, regarding his “true trustworthy intentions towards “Israel”. Clinton and McCain abused some former statements of Obama in his Senate race in 2005, in which he expressed sympathy with the Palestinian people causes. Obama also had good relations with Palestinian activists like Edward Said and Rashid Al-Khalidi.
When Obama became a senate, his attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict started to change rapidly, from sympathizing with Palestinians to total bias to “Israel”. His votes in favor of any decision that serves Israeli interests, stand as clear evidences of this bias. This change was also evident in Obama’s speech at AIPAC in June 2008, when he exaggeratedly glorified “Israel” and the dream it represents.
Yet further, in that speech, Obama declared his support for declaring Jerusalem an undivided capital of “Israel”, a statement that contradicts with the policies of all the previous administrations since the establishment of “Israel”. But later, Obama’s presidency campaign rolled back on this position, claiming that Obama was then misunderstood, and that this issue is left to final negotiations between “Israel” and Palestinians.
The agenda of Obama and his vice president Joe Biden, on the issues of foreign policy, indicates complete commitment towards “Israel”, the continual of supporting the Israeli efforts in developing a special defense system to protect “Israel” against missiles; and the maintenance of the generous US military and economic aid to “Israel”. The foreign policy agenda also notes that Israel’s security is on top of the administration’s priorities in the Middle East. Additionally, it calls for exporting arms to “Israel” under the same rules that apply to the relations between the US and NATO member countries.
Although Obama made achieving a “lasting peace” a primary goal to his administration, he realizes that achieving such a goal requires serious Israeli concessions. He also realizes that any American pressure on “Israel” to make such concessions will rage the Israelis, and consequently, the pro-Israelis in Washington. Hence the question arises on how could Obama reconcile between his commitments to achieve a lasting peace and his bias towards the Israeli favors?
In his above mentioned 2008 speech at AIPAC, Obama attempted at a philosophical portrait of this goal as an ultimate Israeli interest: “Across the political spectrum, Israelis understand that real security can only come through lasting peace. And that is why we — as friends of Israel — must resolve to do all we can to help Israel and its neighbors to achieve it”. But to achieve this goal, Palestinians and Arabs must fulfill many commitments, as Obama explained in his speech:
“The United States and the international community must stand by Palestinians who are committed to cracking down on terror and carrying the burden of peacemaking. I will strongly urge Arab governments to take steps to normalize relations with Israel, and to fulfill their responsibility to pressure extremists and provide real support for President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. Egypt must cut off the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Israel can also advance the cause of peace by taking appropriate steps — consistent with its security — to ease the freedom of movement for Palestinians, improve economic conditions in the West Bank, and to refrain from building new settlements — as it agreed to with the Bush administration at Annapolis… but any agreement with the Palestinian people must preserve Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, with secure, recognized and defensible borders. Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided”.
Even during his electoral campaign, Obama’s will to get directly involved in the efforts of seeking to settle the Israeli–Palestinian conflict was presented and justified through the perspective of defending Israel’s interests. Thus the new president criticized his predecessor policies in the region, claiming that they increasingly isolated US and accumulated the threats facing “Israel” with the rise of rivals like Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah.
Obama’s bias towards “Israel” was further revealed when he appointed Hillary Clinton as the secretary of State, and Clinton is known for her strong support to “Israel”. Talks are also spreading about the expected appointment of Dennis Ross, who is also known for his complete bias to “Israel”, as her advisor on Foreign Affairs. In addition, Obama’s circle of advisors on Middle Eastern affairs are also known for their unchallenged bias for “Israel”, most notably among them is Denis McDounagh, the foreign policy adviser to Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader of the Democratic Party; and Daniel Shapiro, a Jewish American who served as a member of the National Security Council under Clinton’s administration.
Concluding from the above, it is quite obvious that Obama is evermore preferring direct involvement, specifically in the Israeli–Palestinian negotiations, and generally in the wider Israeli-Arab track, but from the basis of being fully biased to “Israel”. He is thus adopting an approach that is similar to Clinton’s approach. Clinton however had failed during his eight years administration to achieve any essential progress on this track. Namely, the failure of Camp David marathonic negotiations in the Summer of 2002, might push Obama to be more cautious, in order to save the US administration from a yet additional defame in this respect, similar to the one suffered by the Clinton administration following the failure of Camp David II.
Additionally, Obama’s electoral promises of changing the dynamics of American diplomacy, internationally and in the Middle East, might lead him to consider a solution in the wider context. Obama has often declared that he will seek to hold talks with Syria and Iran (the carrot and stick policy), and withdraw the American forces from Iraq within 16 months. Thus the new president’s policies do contradict with those of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who insisted on adhering more to the stick only policy when dealing with these opposition forces in the region. Possibly, Obama’s Administration is biasing its policies on the premise that achieving some progress on these tracks is capable of leading to some disentanglement in the complicatedly knotted issue of the Israeli-Palestinian settlement.
Another reason that would encourage Obama to get more involved in the peace process and to attempt at achieving some substantial progress, is that Obama considers the advice of some other unofficial advisors, who adopt more moderate stances regarding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and demand a more balanced American Policy; and who don’t hesitate to criticize “Israel” when there is a need to do so. Among those advisors is the former US president Jimmy Carter, the former National Security advisor under Carter’s administration Zbigniew Burzynski, and Robert Omali, former aide of president Clinton. The three, for example, argue that it is imperative to involve Hamas in the peace process in a way or another, and one of their suggestions in this respect is to involve the movement through a Palestinian National Unity Government, under Mahmoud Abbas’ authority.
The Expected Israeli Response
It is obviously foreseeable that Obama will face major challenges in his endeavor to put the peace process wagon on the trail once again. This challenge questions Obama’s practical capability of pressuring “Israel” to respond to his efforts and approach. For being totally biased towards “Israel” doesn’t necessarily mean that the latter will respond to his efforts. Israeli governments have repeatedly manipulated with fulfilling their commitments to the former American Administrations of Clinton and Bush; Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Israeli prime minister refused to fulfill the Israeli commitments pledged at Wye River in the 1998 memorandum he signed with the Palestinian President Yassir Arafat. Similarly, Ehud Olmert’s former Israeli government also disavowed its commitments pledged in Annapolis in late 2007.
Repeatedly, the supporters of “Israel” in the US particularly in the Congress, are ready to sabotage any serious pressure that might be exerted on “Israel” to compel it to accept some compromise. Additionally, Israeli polls forecast an electoral victory to the right wing Likud Party in the upcoming Knesset elections in February. The implications of such a victory make it hard to be optimistic about the ability of Obama to pressure a Likud-led government, and specifically an Israeli government led by Netanyahu who previously managed to undermine Clinton’s pressures via a parallel pressure that was exerted by the Congress, and that eventually led Clinton to set back.
In short, the future of the peace process does not depend on Obama’s good intentions or on his insistence to achieve a settlement during his four-year presidency term. It rather depends in the first place on his ability to essentially pressure “Israel” and convince the Congress to side his stances; a very doubtful situation to be achieved unless an American–American consensus about this issue is achieved, followed by Israeli-American agreement. Without either, Obama essentially has very little to achieve.