Barack Obama wants it both ways. Like every United States president since Bill Clinton, who partially brokered the now-defunct Oslo Accords in 1993, he aspires to act as a trusted intermediary in the 63-year old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, while simultaneously pandering to America’s massive pro-Israel lobby. These clashing goals have spurred him to propose an array of conflicting claims and positions that, aside from being fundamentally incompatible, are often simply painful to observe.
Over the course of four short days in mid-May, he managed, in three separate addresses – at the US State Department, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House briefing room, and at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful flagship of the Israel lobby – to offer blatant discrepancies, of policy or omission, on nearly every aspect of the conflict. This jarring discord did nothing to bolster Washington’s role in the situation and, to careful listeners, reinforced its ultimate irrelevance to any genuine resolution of it.
Obama’s glaring hypocrisy was perhaps at its most obvious on questions of armed force. It takes a special brand of chutzpah to proclaim, as Obama did at both the State Department and AIPAC, that “every state has the right to self-defense,” and then to propose, in the very same paragraph of both speeches, that Palestinians should settle for “a sovereign, non-militarized state.” When it comes to the rights to which all states are equally entitled, it seems, some states are more equal than others.
Despite dwelling on the theme of political violence, Obama showed little interest in violence emanating from Israelis, which killed 7,342 Palestinians between September 29, 2000 and December 31, 2010, dwarfing Israeli casualties, according to a recent report by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. At the State Department, while offering multiple platitudes about “the moral force of non-violence” and sermonizing that “[t]he United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region,” he did not see fit to mention that Israeli troops had killed fifteen unarmed Palestinian refugees demonstrating at the country’s contested borders, and wounded hundreds more, only four days before. Nor did he mention this massacre while later feting Israeli representatives at the White House or AIPAC. His speech at the latter did, however, include a formulaic demand for the “rejecting [of] violence” by Palestinians.
Obama caused the biggest splash, it seems, by opining that “[t]he borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps … The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.” Following Netanyahu’s insistence at the White House that Israel “cannot go back to the 1967 lines,” Obama tempered his position at AIPAC to “account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.” Those “demographic realities,” incidentally, are the illegal settlements Obama has defended at every turn, most pointedly by vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning them on February 18.
Leaving aside the word “contiguous,” which the 1967 borders of the Palestinian territories are not, several obvious problems emerge. Elsewhere in his State Department address, Obama suggested that “the future of Jerusalem” should remain unresolved in the new negotiations he proposed. Surely he is no unaware that East Jerusalem falls within the 1967 borders of the West Bank? More likely, he is relying on the perceived ignorance of his American listeners, while forgetting he has any others.
Likewise, he probably hopes the public has forgotten his previous statements on the matter. The day after securing the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2008, Obama told AIPAC, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” And while President Obama similarly suggested postponing deliberations on “the fate of Palestinian refugees” at the State Department, Candidate Obama blustered that “the Palestinians are gonna have to recognize that the right of return as they’ve understood it historically would extinguish Israel as a Jewish state, and that’s not an option.” Those aware of such brusque pronouncements may easily doubt the sincerity of his current garment-rending on these “wrenching and emotional issues.”
No did Obama stop insulting his audience’s intelligence there. Palestinians must “adher[e] … to all existing agreements,” he thundered at AIPAC. Would those be the Oslo Accords or the Wye River Memorandum, Mr. President? Surely you’re aware that the first expired on May 4, 1999, while the second was never implemented by Israel? Some of us are.
But Obama saved his greatest ire for “efforts to delegitimize Israel.” “Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist,” he said at the State Department. “[H]ow can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” “[I]t is very difficult for Israel to be expected to negotiate in a serious way with a party that refuses to acknowledge its right to exist,” he sympathized in the White House. At AIPAC, he hardened this line. “Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist,” he said after quoting himself: “Israel’s existence must not be a subject for debate.”
Of course he didn’t mention the platform of Israel’s ruling Likud party, which “flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.” Nor did he broach the positions of its fundamentalist coalition partners like Shas, who would deny not only Palestinians’ right to exist in a self-determining state, but also their humanity.
Such hypocrisy emanating from Washington doubtlessly accounts in part for the independent course Palestinians have charted since the beginning of the Arab revolutions, and particularly the overthrow of Egypt’s Mubarak regime on February 11. The anti-settlement Security Council resolution vetoed by Obama, the reconciliation of the Palestinian Authority on April 27, the marches of tens of thousands of refugees to the borders of their historic homeland on May 15 and June 5, and maneuvers by the Palestine Liberation Organization for United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood in September have all faced opposition by the Obama administration. Together, they demonstrate that while efforts by Palestinians to achieve self-determination have not reached full accord, Palestinians are through waiting for Washington’s approval of their liberation. Americans who are equally tired of condescending deceit would do well to learn from their example.