Waiting for peace

A PALESTINIAN PAINTER putting the finishing touches to his painting of Barack Obama, in Ramallah on November 4. Polls have periodically shown that many Israelis would favour a complete withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for a peace accord with the Palestinians and Syria.

LIKE the five peas in a pod in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale who believed the world to be first green then yellow, the Israelis see the world strictly through their own interests, or perceived interests. Days after the United States presidential election and its dramatic results, most of the Israeli media are focussing on the President-elect’s attitude towards Israel and the West Asian conflict (aka the “peace process”), with an emphasis on Iran.

The tasks before Barack Obama are Herculean. He must first of all tackle the tremendous economic crisis shaking the world and the painful uncertainty about the future – jobs, income, mortgages, education, health – gripping the majority of Americans and millions of others in the Western world. He must decide on how to proceed in Iraq and in Afghanistan. He will have to end the secrecy and the roughshod trampling of civil and human rights that have characterised the George W. Bush administration. He will have to repair America’s relations with the international community and the system of conventions, treaties and accords it has built up since 1945. He will have to restart American research into fields stifled by the evangelicals. In short, he is faced with a challenge of perhaps unprecedented magnitude.

But here in Israel, all this hardly impinges on the view of the coming administration. Most Israelis saw the U.S. elections as a choice between a continuation of past policies, as represented by John McCain and his supporters, and something new and unknown and hence threatening. McCain, who sang “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran!” and whose Republican associates ensured unconditional devotion to Israel’s right-wing camp, seemed to many Israelis like a safe pair of hands. Obama, who does not shout, who speaks in reasonable tones and suggests that dialogue might be better than “pre-emptive” attacks, who does not use the Bush administration rhetoric about “rogue nations” and “axis of evil”, looks to the Israelis like a new kid on the block who cannot be trusted to maintain the bullying order.

Obama did his best: he appeared before the Zionist lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, (which should strictly be described as the right-wing Likud lobby) and mouthed all the usual platitudes as did his rival Hillary Clinton and his running mate, Joe Biden. It helped, and indeed over 70 per cent of the Jewish-American voters gave him their support. This is roughly in keeping with the traditional Jewish preference for Democrats. In Israel, however, American citizens who voted went the other way – about two-thirds of them voted for McCain.

But should we continue to evaluate the relations between Israel and the U.S. in the terms coined and tendered by the Zionist lobby or in terms of the conditions in West Asia? This is a crucial question because the reality on the ground is much more complex and shifting than the image projected in the mainstream media in the West. Much of this image has been crafted by the alliance between right-wing Israelis (that is, the Likud and its circle) and American fundamentalist Christians, widely known as evangelicals. The latter were central players in the administration of Bush Jr., and they combined with the neocons – a strange sect of ex-Marxists with a peculiarly belligerent ideology – to steer the U.S. into its present quagmire. Between them they co-opted the West Asian narrative.

In their presentation, Israel’s very existence is threatened by Hamas, Hizbollah and, most dangerously, the Islamic Republic of Iran. A second Holocaust may begin at any moment unless Israel is totally supported, whatever its actions. This rhetoric has been reverberating in the U.S. elections on the understanding that Israel’s interests are identical with those of the U.S. People who question this presentation are dubbed “controversial” or even “anti-Semitic” – adjectives that deliver the kiss of death to candidates aspiring to public office.

But between this picture and the reality on the ground in West Asia, there is a considerable discrepancy. In the first place, nothing the severest critics of Israel’s policies dare say in the U.S. is stronger than some of the articles and editorials in Haaretz, Israel’s leading broadsheet, and numerous Hebrew websites. Polls have periodically shown that half or more of the Israelis would favour a complete withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for a peace accord with the Palestinians and Syrians. Moreover, the settlers in the West Bank are widely distrusted and disliked by the bulk of the Israeli public because of their constant provocations and violence, not only against their Palestinian neighbours but also against the Israeli soldiers who are sent to protect them.
The Israel-Iran contrast

As for Hamas and Hizbollah, these are militant organisations who, it is true, have repeatedly attacked Israel, but they are just that, militant organisations, mere irritants to the strongest military power in the region. The Iranian threat, too, is greatly overstated as serious analysts keep reiterating. Even if the Islamic republic is secretly trying to produce nuclear weapons – and managing to hide the process from the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency – it could be no less than several years away from a viable weapon. By contrast, Israel has hundreds of nukes of all sorts and is under no IAEA supervision whatsoever.

Moreover, Iran has not invaded any country for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and is not an aggressive power. Israel has repeatedly invaded neighbouring countries and seized chunks of their territories – it even attacked Iraq, with which it has no border. Conclusion: it is Iran rather than Israel that is being threatened.

What will all this mean to President Obama? To evaluate his general philosophy, we can start by looking at his campaign promises. Even if, like most elected individuals, he does not quite live up to them, they do give an indication of his world view. Here are 10 of Obama’s campaign promises (from the campaign website http://www.barackobama.com/issues/):

OBAMA IN THE Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem on July 23 looking at pictures of Jews killed in the Holocaust. The Likud/Zionist lobby will continue to cry out that Israel is in constant danger, but inside the famous Washington Loop, it will be seen for what it is - a formula for ensuring the unbroken flow of support.

• Reduce the U.S.’ carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 and play a strong positive role in negotiating a binding global treaty to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol.

• Withdraw all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months and keep no permanent bases in the country.

• Establish a clear goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons across the globe.

• Close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.

• Double U.S. aid to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015 and accelerate the fight against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

• Open diplomatic talks with countries such as Iran and Syria to pursue peaceful resolution of tensions.

• Depoliticise military intelligence to avoid ever repeating the kind of manipulation that led the U.S. into Iraq.

• Launch a major diplomatic effort to stop the killings in Darfur.

• Only negotiate new trade agreements that contain labour and environmental protections.

• Invest $150 billion over 10 years to support renewable energy and get one million plug-in electric cars on the road by 2015.

This is an impressive list. It indicates a general preference for resolving problems by constructive means. Both the verb “negotiate” and the adjective “diplomatic” appear twice. It acknowledges that the task before the U.S. is immense and costly and will require understanding and patience if the mistakes of the past are not to be repeated – for example, the need to “depoliticise military intelligence”.

Furthermore, when your declared goal is to eliminate all nuclear weapons across the globe, you are in a better position to call on Iran to abandon such a presumed project and call on Israel to (a) come clean about its nuclear arsenal and (b) demand its elimination. This would certainly be a huge improvement over the policies of previous administrations.
Burning issues

Without expecting Obama to achieve all he has promised, I certainly expect him to tackle the big and burning issues first. He is committed to withdrawing from Iraq – “and keep no permanent bases in the country”. He has to deal with the situation in Afghanistan and its extension in Pakistan – two very complex and challenging tasks. He must consider to what extent the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is a useful adjunct to American power and where the lines must be drawn vis-a-vis Russia, if the relatively small clash in the Caucasus is not to grow into a much bigger one.

Before all this, Obama’s administration will have to help the U.S., and with it most of the world, to overcome the economic downturn that is threatening to undermine whole societies, starting with Middle America. No American President has faced such a challenge since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Today, after decades of aggressive free-market policies and “trickle-down” economics, it will be much harder than it was in the 1930s.

What then of the West Asian conflict and the so-called peace process, with their numerous photo opportunities? I imagine that this issue will remain on the back burner. It is not the most urgent problem for the new administration to tackle. China and India, Russia and Africa, these are the elephants in the room. Sad to say, the plight of the Palestinians has been mostly ignored for the past 60 years, and although it has worsened in the past decade and a half, it will continue to be shunted aside while the bigger and more urgent issues require the full attention of the White House and U.S. Congress. The Likud/Zionist lobby will continue to cry out that Israel is in constant danger, but inside the famous Washington Loop, it will be seen for what it is – a formula for ensuring the unbroken flow of financial, military and diplomatic support.

Israelis have drawn comfort from the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Obama’s Chief of Staff. Emanuel has strong links with Israel and is supposed to be a good friend of AIPAC – but he is not a neocon. He comes from the Bill Clinton camp and was closely involved with the so-called Oslo Agreement, which climaxed with the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn. He is Obama’s personal friend and is known as a skilful Washington insider. If this appointment reassures Zionists of all stripes that the new administration will not “abandon” them – that is, put real pressure on the Israeli government to make real concessions – then it will spare the Obama White House some unnecessary stress.

I may be mistaken on all counts, but while not overly optimistic about the chances of true peace in the old West Asian conflict, I am not more pessimistic than I was before November 4 – and a whole lot less pessimistic than I would have been if McCain had won. He might have proceeded to unleash World War Three, starting with an attack on Iran. So let us count our blessings and hope for the best.