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U.S. elections: No endorsement

President Obama’s record on the Palestinian issue is so bad that the winner of the upcoming elections is irrelevant.

President Barack Obama watches as PM Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas shake hands. While the administration is clearly frustrated with Netanyahu, it has also lost interest in the Palestinian cause. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Four years ago, I traveled to the United States to cover the Democratic and Republican conventions. It was an inspiring experience, largely due to the unique feelings that accompanied the candidacy of (now) president Obama. Judging from afar, it seems that much of this excitement is gone, and the current elections are a frustrating and rather cynical experience. Still, if I were an American living in the U.S., I probably would have voted for President Obama for many reasons – from LGBT rights to Supreme Court nominations. Living in a country that provides affordable and rather effective public health care, the only problem I see with Obamacare is the rather limited goals of the program.

But I am not American, and I would like to judge these elections from my perspective as an Israeli, and mainly through the issues that dominate my political engagement.

My country, Israel, was mentioned 34 times in the U.S. presidential debate on foreign policy. Only Iran got more mentions, and most of them also had to do with Israel. China, seen by many as the greatest challenge to the United States, came in a close third. Strangely enough, the Palestinians – whose issue is so closely linked to Israel’s – were only mentioned once, and even this one time was by Romney – a man who thinks there is no way to end the conflict and no need to terminate the occupation, so why bother.

This week, wearing his new, moderate persona, Romney had this to say:

You look at the record of the last four years and say, is Iran closer to a bomb? Yes. Is the Middle East in tumult? Yes. Is — is al-Qaida on the run, on its heels? No. Is — are Israel and the Palestinians closer to — to reaching a peace agreement? No, they haven’t had talks in two years. We have not seen the progress we need to have…

Leaving aside the absurd notion that it is the role of the United States to end the “turmoil” in the Middle East, New Romney has a point. It is no surprise that President Obama failed to address the Palestinian issue, or as Americans like to call it, “the peace process.” The administration had very little to be proud of.

Shortly after president Obama was elected, he promised not to turn his back on the Palestinian people. It was a brave statement, considering that in some places, even mentioning the word Palestinians is a non-starter. Yet those turned out to be empty words, when it was revealed that the administration couldn’t stand the political price that the Israeli prime minister made it pay at home. After some back and forth between Jerusalem and Washington, the president appointed Dennis Ross – the man most associated with the diplomatic failure of the last couple of decades – to head  Middle East policy, or more accurately, to win favors with the Lobby and the heads of the Jewish communities. The president then blocked a largely symbolic Palestinian statehood bid at the UN, and ended up vetoing a Security Council resolution on the settlements that was a copy of previous State Department declarations.

Today, the United States is the enabler of the occupation: it provides the military infrastructure, the financial aid and the diplomatic cover for it. If it hadn’t done so, the continuing denial of basic human rights from millions would have ended long ago. Some might argue that the president had no choice, and that this is the result of unique circumstances and power relations in Washington. If so, then Washington needs to change, and right now, there is no reason to support those denying it. While the administration is clearly frustrated and resentful of Prime Minister Netanyahu, it also seems to have simply lost interest in the Palestinian issue.

The Palestinian issue is the main reason for my political engagement. The desire to end the occupation and to have Palestinians enjoy equal rights is what lies behind most of my political choices. There is something hollow in the robotic repetition of a commitment to Israel, without showing the slightest interest in the fundamental matter that shapes the lives of real people here, Jews and Arabs. It simply feels wrong to play along with this attitude, no matter how effectively one can rationalize it.

I do not expect the United States to pick sides in Israeli politics and I don’t want it to be anti-Israel. I expect it to be anti-occupation. In this particular sense, the Obama administration was much worse than Bush’s, who forced the road map upon both sides, and made Israel abandon its plan to built in the E1 region northeast of Jerusalem. Naturally, Bush was operating in a different environment, but as even former head of Mossad Ephrayim Halevi notes, for some reason Republican administrations are always more effective at keeping Israeli expansionist tendencies at bay. Maybe we should keep this in mind. In terms of policy – and not just rhetoric – I am not that sure anymore that a Romney administration would be that different from Obama’s.

There will be unfortunate and unpleasant results for a Republican victory in the coming elections. The celebrations in both the Israeli right and neo-con circles will be difficult to bear. Some might argue that it would make the Lobby even more powerful. But such micro-politics can only take you so far. At the end of the day, leaders should be judged on their actions. If Israel wasn’t on the agenda at all, it would have been a different case. But Israel is discussed constantly, and the administration has been making all  bad choices. There is zero evidence that things will be better in the second term – only wishful thinking. It’s simply not enough to win my support.

Luckily, I don’t get to vote.

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    1. Richard Witty

      He did more than what was possible, and paid for it.

      “No endorsement” is an endorsement.

      Israel now knows that it is dependent on the US. When Hamas elected likud in 2009, Israel committed to political independence.

      Obama declaring that the US has Israel’s back, is the opportunity for center-left Israeli parties to actually win an election, with the likud argument neutered (“fear, risk, backbone, backbone”)

      Don’t give it credibility by the absence of endorsement.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Danny

      Obama – while thoroughly despising Netanyahu and everything he stands for – doesn’t want to be a one-term president like Jimmy Carter. He believes, perhaps naively, that it is acceptable to sacrifice the Palestinians in his first term for the securing of a second term. My belief is that Obama will slowly reveal his true feelings on Netanyahu and quietly work to tie him up on on the Palestinian issue (especially on the issues of settlement construction and the illegal Judaization of East Jerusalem). I believe that, while we won’t see the reincarnation of James Baker, we will see a different president Obama – one who is flanked by a resolute John Kerry as S.O.S. – who will work to quietly unravel the occupation and set Israel on a path of peace.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        Obama knows, like Romney who said it outright, that there is no chance of a compromise, contractual peace. Obama spent hours and hours pleading with Abbas to exploit the settlement freeze that Netanyahu agreed to, to no avail. That is why it makes no difference who is elected President…no one is in a position to force the Palestinians to make peace with Israel, which they refuse to do.

        Reply to Comment
        • Danny

          What Obama MUST do in his second term (assuming he’ll get it) is force Israel to stop building settlements on Palestinian land, including in occupied East Jerusalem. And I believe this he will do. As for Abbas – he is an old man whose time has come and gone, and he will probably be gone soon anyway. Perhaps new, young Palestinian leaders will arise that will make Israel’s leadership look like the goons that they are. My personal preference is Hannan Ashrawi.

          Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            Why didn’t he do this in his first term, when his Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress?
            If you are going to say that “he needed the Jewish vote to get re-elected”, he will still have to worry about Democratic support in Congress which he would need to have in order to do what you want, and they will still have to worry about being re-elected.

            Reply to Comment
          • Because he faced a possible world depression and, on top of that, decided to go all out for healthcare, while Knesset legislation is moving to the right, with the foreign minister of Israel suggesting that entire towns of Israeli Arab citizens be swapped into Palestinian territory as part of a “solution.” This last: do you understand what it means to an American Democrat to seriously propose natural born residents be stripped of their citizenship? The US already helps underwrite the occupation and Authority. He has no tools without high internal political cost; recall the House went Republican in two years. There was nothing he could do with any promise of outcome, while the costs would be clear and lasting at home.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Gidon

      Obama has been a big disappointment, for those that thought that the amerikan system is a democracy. Well it is not. Since the moderate to liberal to left majority has no place to go the system used to drift to the right, now it runs to the right.
      Here in Israel they are trying to create the same anti-democratic system. The irony is the anti-democratic religious parties will not let them

      Reply to Comment
    4. aristeides

      It’s astonishing how the hopium addicts can’t give up their drug. “Wait til the 2nd term.” Hold your breath and turn blue while you’re at it.

      Reply to Comment
    5. bobzz

      Perhaps this is the place to ask what you think. What if America were to say (nicely but firmly), “Israel, we will continue to support you. We understand your history of centuries of persecution by the church/state nexus, the Shoah, the Dreyfuss affair, etc. You have a legal right to your place in the sun and that is the land of the 1967 border. If you want to continue to receive the $3 billion in annual aid, you must withdraw behind the 67 borders, dismantle the settlements and the wall. If you do not, we shall stop the $3 billion/year. In any event, you will not veto such things as the Goldstone Report, etc. If you have any misgivings about your security, we will agree on the number of American troops that will station on your soil. No one will attack you as it will be war with Israel and America. We will not insist on a Status of Forces agreement. If an American soldier rapes an Israeli woman, he will be tried in an Israeli court. I am very naive about the very complex Palestinian/Israeli situation, but I await your criticism. What I do want is to save Israel, and I am not sure the present course of action or non-action will do that. As an American I guess I should say I am not a Christian Zionist.

      One comment for XYZ: Obama did not have a de facto majority—emphasis on de facto. A sufficient number of those Dems were what we call “blue-dog” dems. In reality, they are crypto-republicans; they may as well be republicans as they vote with them on all issues. They were one of the reasons Obama’s health care was gutted, along with serious banking reform, etc.

      One more comment and I will listen: my guess is that Romney will win (hope I am wrong), and if he does, war with Iran becomes more probable than possible. After all he told ‘Bibi’ that he would follow his lead.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        There are no circumstances under which Israel will withdraw behind the 1967 lines. There are 600,000 Israelis on the other side as well as the holiest places to Judaism and the launch pads for future rocket attacks on Tel Aviv. If the US demands are more reasonable – settlement freeze, partial redeployment – strong pressure might work temporarily but it wouldn’t fundamentally change anything.

        US troops or assurances wouldn’t help because they can not be relied upon for long-term security (see Iraq, Afghanistan, South Vietnam, etc..). In other words, it doesn’t make sense to make permanent concessions in return for American guarantees, especially given the economic and political uncertainty that the US now faces.

        Finally, don’t worry about saving Israel. Israel is not presently in danger.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Noam S.: “Today, The United State is the enabler of the occupation: it provides the military infrastructure, the financial aid and the diplomatic cover for it. If it hadn’t done so, the continuing denial of basic human rights from millions would have ended long ago. Some might argue that the president had no choice…” : Obama is actually much a centerist. Recall that he refused intervention in Libya until the Security Council gave, to quote him, an “international writ.” The word “writ” is purposively chosen. He did it when it could advance international law; not otherwise.

      The US can never solve your dilemma. I suspect withdrawal of aid (which I and about 5 others would support) would turn your government even meaner. What the US can do is redistribute what it gives to enhance intergration–if your lands ever want that. I do not think Abbas effectual, and I do not think he is so because ‘all Palestinians refuse peace.’ But until you give the US something tangible to support, nothing can be done. And I don’t know how you do it. You must start to change first; then the US will come to aid.

      I might as well destroy what legitimacy I might have on this site, real name and all: I am one of those denied coverage for pre existing conditions. I am currently on the Federal risk pool program, part of “Obamacare,” but there is a good chance that even with O’s reelection the Republicans will destroy my coverage. So I do have to vote.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Tamar

      I’m an American-Israeli, privileged to vote in two countries. I voted twice (second time, this month on deadline for mail-in ballots) for Obama. Israel is hardly among USAians’ key issues this election. Economy, jobs, education, repairing/rebuilding infrastructure, immigration laws, women’s rights, Supreme Court appointments in the coming administration, Medicare, Social Security, regulating banking and financial institutions, unwanted wars costing lives and fortunes — to name just a few issues. Oh, and please note the well-funded right-wing, fascist, and racist organizations and individuals dedicated to destroying the President’s programs, initiatives, and accomplishments his entire term… Not to decide is to decide, and not to vote is to vote. Yet Israel is not the fifty-first state so ultimately it doesn’t matter what Israelis think about USA candidates and parties.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Passerby

      “Leaving aside the absurd notion that it is the role of the United States to end the ‘turmoil’ in the Middle East…”

      Make up your mind, please. Does the USA get to play the role of governess in the Middle East, or should they rather let things take their own bloody course? You can’t expect the USA to force Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, on the one hand, yet do nothing to prevent the West Bank from becoming a second Hamastan, on the other.

      The occupation will end when Israel and the Palestinians are mature enough to reach a long-lasting and consensual agreement that respects the interests of both sides. No magical solutions can be foisted upon this region by the USA, the EU, or the Arab League. The most they can do is prevent the situation from deteriorating further. It seems they aren’t even accomplishing that.

      Reply to Comment
      • amy

        Well said!

        Reply to Comment
    9. Noam

      Noam, as I asked before, where is the promised feature on Meretz and Galon? It’s been a long time ago. I’m very curious!

      Reply to Comment
      • Always short of time. But I will write about Meretz and Hadash before the elections.

        Reply to Comment
    10. Susan

      I am not basing my decision of who to vote for solely on Israel/Palestine issues. Although, I think that Obama is much better than Romney on these issues.

      First of all, as a woman, I am deeply worried about what Romney would mean for women. He would make abortion illegal. He would make it harder for woman to get birth control. He would appoint Supreme Court justices who would turn back the clock on women’s issues and all kinds of other issues as well.

      Then there’s making health care available to all Americans. Something that Israelis take for granted.

      Tamar is right Romney would reverse Obama’s accomplishments and the government would become under Romney a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.

      I thought the left was supposed to care about all these issues.

      Reply to Comment
      • Donchi

        You’re upset because the author thinks it’s unseemly that America takes orders from right wing Zionists. The author enjoys his free health care–well, it’s not free, really. With American taxpayers footing so many of Israel’s bills, they can afford such luxuries. “Give us your money and shut up,” is Israel’s order, and America meekly obeys.

        Reply to Comment
    11. No one should be holding their breath for Congress to pull back their “aid” to Israel or any other ally.

      Billions in US taxpayer funds gets channeled to US defense contractors who provide that aid.

      It’s a boon to them and the US economy, and you can bet defense lobbyists will fight like the world was ending if public opinion were to swing in that direction (unlikely).

      “Jobs” is THE main word in this US election campaign cycle and many of those jobs are in building weapons. Any member of Congress other than maybe the tiny Ron Paul and far left niche might be able to defend themselves to their constituents, but any other Congressperson that advocates ending that aid will be assailed as “killing American jobs” and risks losing his or her own.

      Reply to Comment
    12. SDK

      The occupation exists (partially) due to American support. American support exists (largely) due to a combination of American Jewish pressure on the Democrats and American evangelical pressure on Republicans.

      What causes American Jewish pressure on Democrats? A lack of awareness that it is possible to support and love Israel without supporting or loving the Israeli right-wing.

      And what do American Jews need in order to gain this awareness? Permission from you, the Israeli Left.

      Yes, you heard me. We need you to write op-eds in American Jewish papers and to come and speak in our synagogues. When you come to New York or Boston or Atlanta or LA for your postdoc, you should not avoid the American Jewish community because you find us distasteful (at worst) and confused (at best) and just hang out for two to five years with your lefty Israeli friends.

      You should use those two years to speak to every American Jew (and Christian evangelical) you can find about your perspective.

      The Israeli Right is not too proud to come and talk to us. We hear from them all the time. We never hear from you.

      Let’s consider a right-wing colleague at your work or a right-leaning cab driver in Israel. What are your chances of convincing them to help end the occupation? Basically zero. And yet, you will argue with this person as if your life depended upon it — you will come home late for dinner just to fully complete your arguments.

      But when you come to the States, you don’t come to talk with us, because we mostly hang out in synagogues. You are too stuck up to ever attend synagogue, even for political reasons.

      Americans understand democracy. Yes, we are also ignorant and confused and weirdly religious. But democracy (equal rights, one person, one vote) is one of the few things that almost all Americans understand and support.

      The Israeli Left could have a huge friend in both American Jewish and even in evangelical communities if you would only speak directly to us instead of letting AIPAC and the Israeli Consulate represent you.

      In short, if you spent half the time you spend talking to people who already agree with you talking to American Jews and those evangelicals you happen to meet, you could get a far better return on your time and energy. Think about it.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Duncan

      Israel has never been an independent country! Until they break the chains of constant infusion of US Foreign Aid can they be truly free !

      Reply to Comment
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