Left at the Crossroads: Obama, Netanyahu, and the game of pretense

Henry Siegman, former director of the American Jewish Congress, has an interesting take on the Middle East conundrum. It reminds him of a vintage Soviet joke: we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us. So it has been with the peace process, says Siegman: Israeli governments pretend they are seeking a two-state solution, and the United States pretends it believes them.

The awkward relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a singular new twist to this bizarre game of pretense. There’s little personal chemistry and a deep mistrust between the two men, but the wariness of the Israeli establishment and the pro-Israel lobby towards Obama has deeper motives.

They suspect that he is the first American president who may have developed a truly independent judgment about what the conflict is all about. And in spite of the regular reassurances of eternal friendship and unwavering solidarity between the two countries, such a dangerous cool-mindedness is not good for Israel, they fear.

There’s some truth to their suspicion. What Jimmy Carter came to clearly realize long after his presidency, Obama seems to have already been aware of when he represented Chicago’s 13th district in the Illinois senate. In essence, whatever the tragic and complex causes that nurtured the Zionist dream and Israel’s creation, the Palestinian narrative of colonial subjugation and denial at the hands of a brutal intruder is not just an irrational anti-Semitic canard.

Various Palestinian American activists in the Chicago area will confirm that the young state senator had got their story right. It was a time when he was not afraid to embrace publicly controversial advocates of Palestinian rights such as renowned scholar Rashid Khalidi.

Of course, Obama is no more a simple state senator. As it is often the case with him, his subtle intellectual grasp of the situation does not always translate in a forceful determination to back his deepest convictions with the power the U.S. government could wield. At least not in the case of Israel.

Obama is the president of the United States, not of Egypt or Syria. He has to deal on a daily basis with the powerful mix of biblical sentiment, historical emotions, ideological delusions, imaginary identification and complex economic and geopolitical considerations that characterize the relation between the leading superpower and its tiny but disproportionately influent client state in the Middle East.

Those who care for the desperate situation of the Palestinians see the U.S. president’s attitude as hopelessly coward-like. Conversely, the neoconservatives accuse him of being ready to sell out Israel. Defending the rationality of his Middle East rhetoric before the knee-jerk advocates of the Jewish state, Obama said that “real friends talk openly and honestly with one another.”

One can always complain that Obama is not as open and honest as he could be with the Israel-right-or-wrong crowd. But as realists point out, more openness and honesty about the myths that surround America’s embrace of the Zionist narrative in its extreme Likudnik version would be politically suicidal – at least before the 2012 presidential election.

The rapturous response to Netanyahu’s May 24 speech before the U.S. Congress is a perfect illustration of the problem. This disgraceful piece of oratory was characterized by its empty demagoguery and mindless intransigence: no negotiations with a Palestinian political entity in which Hamas is represented; no Palestinian refugees, no matter how few or how symbolic, to be admitted to Israel; indefinite Israeli military control of the Jordan River; an undivided Jerusalem as “the united capital of Israel.”

In direct rebuke to the U.S. president, Netanyahu also rejected any recognition of the 1967 borders as an incontrovertible legal base for negotiations. Clearly intended to preempt any further attempt to put pressure on Israel, his embarrassing performance was rewarded with no less than twenty-nine standing ovations.

What no American elected official would ever dare to say publicly, Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld calmly explained a few days later: contrarily to Netanyahu’s justification for the purported unacceptability of the 1967 borders, Israel doesn’t need the West Bank to be secure.

It didn’t need it in 1967, when it took the Israel Defense Forces just six days to crush all its enemies; it doesn’t need it now, when its military position is much stronger. And holding on to the Occupied Territories won’t help the Jewish state defend itself against ballistic missiles coming from Syria or Iran.

Israel must above all save itself from the risk of becoming an apartheid state that can only maintain its control by means of massive repression, insists Van Creveld. It should relinquish the West Bank, most of Arab Jerusalem included. If it doesn’t, the respected Jewish scholar ominously adds, “I would strongly advise my children and grandson to seek some other, less blind and less stiff-necked country to live in.” In other words, every joke has an end.

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Globalization might already sound like a stale catchword, but the new interconnected reality it describes still has surprising tricks up its sleeves. So what do you do when you’re a leftish French writer born in Africa and living in South America, with a background in Slavic Studies, a worried fascination for emerging Asian powers, and interests ranging from classical political philosophy to Bollywood film music? Read, travel, wonder. And send scattered dispatches from modernity’s frontlines.

Marc Saint-Upéry is a French journalist and political analyst living in Ecuador since 1998. He writes about political philosophy, international relations and development issues for various French and Latin American publications and in the international magazines Le Monde Diplomatique and Nueva Sociedad. He is the author of El Sueño de Bolívar: El Desafío de las izquierdas Sudamericanas (Bolivar’s Dream: the Left’s challenge in South America).

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