Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Avnery on Obama: No I Can

In his weekly column for Gush Shalom, veteran Israeli activist and commentator Uri Avnery wonders why Barack Obama should have given a speech at the AIPAC conference that, as Avneri describes it, "broke all records for obsequiousness and fawning"; in particular, he revived support for a refusal of Palestinian sovereignty over Haram-al-Sharif /the Temple Mount.

It certainly seems to be a fact that practically every politician in the US feels the need not to make an enemy of AIPAC. And that this feeling seems justified by the apparent ease with which AIPAC has unseated candidates who, like Maxine Waters Cynthia McKinney, have displeased it. But why should this be? Avnery considers the Mearsheimer and Walt thesis, which points simply to the power and efficacy of the Israel lobby. He rightly detects some inconsistency there: after all corporate lobbies are just as well funded, but do not seem to attain the same identification of official US policy with their interests that AIPAC achieves.

Avnery instead suggests that there is a kind of psychic bind between the two countries because they are both settler states that displaced their native populations. This is certainly an interesting speculation, although it is probably right to be dubious about inferring foreign policy outcomes (like US support for Israel) from generalizations about national psyches. For one thing this covers over another quite plausible explanation: US elites already support a militarized and aggressive Israeli state as an instrument of their policy in West Asia, and this prior identification is the underlying reason why AIPAC is so successful: AIPAC is lobbying the government and telling it what it already wants to hear. One of the consequences of that success (at least on AIPAC's terms) is that the 'change' candidate in the US election may be just more 'business as usual'.

Alistair Welchman


Lincoln Shensky adds:

Avnery does not mention some of the important context of Sen. Obama's comments: Obama was recently pilloried in Israel as an "appeaser" of terrorists by President Bush; meanwhile, Sen. Joe Lieberman has already, it seems, thrown his political weight behind John McCain's candidacy. In short, Obama is facing a real problem appealing to Jewish voters, Jewish donors, and conservative (even if Democratic) Israel supporters in general, and he rightly has his eye on the domestic electoral ball. Whatever the reasons for the ongoing US support of Israel's destructive hardline approach to the Palestinians (both Uri Avnery and JPN's Alistair Welchman make compelling cases for this synergy for different reasons), it is by no means clear that Obama's comments bear a reliable relation to what he would do if elected. And we can hardly be surprised by this, given the conspicuous track record of recent US presidents. Obama aims, above all, to get elected, and evaluating his comments about Israel and
Palestine from within the politics of the region mistakes his purposes. His comments need not, indeed should not, be seen as a simple roadmap of an Obama Administration's future foreign policy.


Joel Beinin adds:

Perhaps it's worth remembering that after a president gets elected once, he is then interested in getting re-elected. So if Obama thinks he has to (and perhaps he has to) do this to get elected, and if he is willing to do it, it indicates a either a streak of opportunism a mile wide or a strong degree of agreement with what he is saying. This doesn't make him any worse than any other candidate I'd be willing to vote for in this election (i.e. any Democrat). But it doesn't make him different or better, or a personal exemplar of the "change" he claims to advocate. It's worth remembering that Obama's personal hero is JFK, who sold Hawk missiles to Israel to retain the Jewish vote, launched the Bay of Pigs invasion, threatened to attack China over Quemoy and Matsu, and sent "advisors" to Vietnam. In short, there is a long history of this kind of politics in the US. It used to be called "Cold War liberalism." Now we need a new name.

Judith Norman and Racheli Gai add:

Jon Stewart had a hilarious and characteristically irreverent take on the candidates' fawning attitudes to AIPAC on the Daily Show. Without endorsing Stewart's particular opinion on the issue (or his questionable choice of terms), it is worth noting how remarkably blunt he is in his criticisms. Following the great tradition that only the jester can tell the truth to the king, it seems that only the comedian can criticize AIPAC in the mainstream media. But it is unclear whether the comedic form serves to neutralize and defuse the criticism, or whether it acts as a sort of Trojan horse for getting the criticisms aired at all.

The clip from the Daily Show is at: http://www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=171492&title=indecision-5768


No, I Can't!
Uri Avnery

AFTER MONTHS of a tough and bitter race, a merciless struggle, Barack Obama has defeated his formidable opponent, Hillary Clinton. He has wrought a miracle: for the first time in history a black person has become a credible candidate for the presidency of the most powerful country in the world.

And what was the first thing he did after his astounding victory? He ran to the conference of the Israel lobby, AIPAC, and made a speech that broke all records for obsequiousness and fawning.

That is shocking enough. Even more shocking is the fact that nobody was shocked.

IT WAS a triumphalist conference. Even this powerful organization had never seen anything like it. 7000 Jewish functionaries from all over the United States came together to accept the obeisance of the entire Washington elite, which came to kowtow at their feet. All the three presidential hopefuls made speeches, trying to outdo each other in flattery. 300 Senators and Members of Congress crowded the hallways. Everybody who wants to be elected or reelected to any office, indeed everybody who has any political ambitions at all, came to see and be seen.

The Washington of AIPAC is like the Constantinople of the Byzantine emperors in its heyday. The world looked on and was filled with wonderment. The Israeli media were ecstatic. In all the world's capitals the events were followed closely and conclusions were drawn. All the Arab media reported on them extensively. Aljazeera devoted an hour to a discussion of the phenomenon.

The most extreme conclusions of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt were confirmed in their entirety. On the eve of their visit to Israel, this coming Thursday, the Israel Lobby stood at the center of political life in the US and the world at large.

WHY, ACTUALLY? Why do the candidates for the American presidency believe that the Israel lobby is so absolutely essential to their being elected?

The Jewish votes are important, of course, especially in several swing states which may decide the outcome. But African-Americans have more votes, and so do the Hispanics. Obama has brought to the political scene millions of new young voters. Numerically, the Arab-Muslim community in the US is also not an insignificant factor.

Some say that Jewish money speaks. The Jews are rich. Perhaps they donate more than others for political causes. But the myth about all-powerful Jewish money has an anti-Semitic ring. After all, other lobbies, and most decidedly the huge multinational corporations, have given considerable sums of money to Obama (as well as to his opponents). And Obama himself has proudly announced that hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens have sent him small donations, which have amounted to tens of millions.

True, it has been proven that the Jewish lobby can almost always block the election of a senator or a member of Congress who does not dance - and do so with fervor - to the Israeli tune. In some exemplary cases (which were indeed meant to be seen as examples) the lobby has defeated popular politicians by lending its political and financial clout to the election campaign of a practically unknown rival.

But in a presidential race?

THE TRANSPARENT fawning of Obama on the Israel lobby stands out more than similar efforts by the other candidates.
Why? Because his dizzying success in the primaries was entirely due to his promise to bring about a change, to put an end to the rotten practices of Washington and to replace the old cynics with a young, brave person who does not compromise his principles.

And lo and behold, the very first thing he does after securing the nomination of his party is to compromise his principles. And how!
The outstanding thing that distinguishes him from both Hillary Clinton and John McCain is his uncompromising opposition to the war in Iraq from the very first moment. That was courageous. That was unpopular. That was totally opposed to the Israel lobby, all of whose branches were fervidly pushing George Bush to start the war that freed Israel from a hostile regime.

And here comes Obama to crawl in the dust at the feet of AIPAC and go out of his way to justify a policy that completely negates his own ideas.

OK he promises to safeguard Israel's security at any cost. That is usual. OK he threatens darkly against Iran, even though he promised to meet their leaders and settle all problems peacefully. OK he promised to bring back our three captured soldiers (believing, mistakenly, that all three are held by Hizbullah - an error that shows, by the way, how sketchy is his knowledge of our affairs.)

But his declaration about Jerusalem breaks all bounds. It is no exaggeration to call it scandalous.

NO PALESTINIAN, no Arab, no Muslim will make peace with Israel if the Haram-al-Sharif compound (also called the Temple Mount), one of the three holiest places of Islam and the most outstanding symbol of Palestinian nationalism, is not transferred to Palestinian sovereignty. That is one of the core issues of the conflict.

On that very issue, the Camp David conference of 2000 broke up, even though the then Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, was willing to divide Jerusalem in some manner.

Along comes Obama and retrieves from the junkyard the outworn slogan "Undivided Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel for all Eternity". Since Camp David, all Israeli governments have understood that this mantra constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to any peace process. It has disappeared - quietly, almost secretly - from the arsenal of official slogans. Only the Israeli (and American-Jewish) Right sticks to it, and for the same reason: to smother at birth any chance for a peace that would necessitate the dismantling of the settlements.

In prior US presidential races, the pandering candidates thought that it was enough to promise that the US embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. After being elected, not one of the candidates ever did anything about this promise. All were persuaded by the State Department that it would harm basic American interests.

Obama went much further. Quite possibly, this was only lip service and he was telling himself: OK, I must say this in order to get elected. After that, God is great.

But even so the fact cannot be ignored: the fear of AIPAC is so terrible, that even this candidate, who promises change in all matters, does not dare. In this matter he accepts the worst old-style Washington routine. He is prepared to sacrifice the most basic American interests. After all, the US has a vital interest in achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace that will allow it to find ways to the hearts of the Arab masses from Iraq to Morocco. Obama has harmed his image in the Muslim world and mortgaged his future - if and when he is elected president.

SIXTY FIVE years ago, American Jewry stood by helplessly while Nazi Germany exterminated their brothers and sisters in Europe. They were unable to prevail on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to do anything significant to stop the Holocaust. (And at that same time, many Afro-Americans did not dare to go near the polling stations for fear of dogs being set on them.)

What has caused the dizzying ascent to power of the American Jewish establishment? Organizational talent? Money? Climbing the social ladder? Shame for their lack of zeal during the Holocaust?

The more I think about this wondrous phenomenon, the stronger becomes my conviction (about which I have already written in the past) that what really matters is the similarity between the American enterprise and the Zionist one, both in the spiritual and the practical sphere. Israel is a small America, the USA is a huge Israel.

The Mayflower passengers, much as the Zionists of the first and second aliya (immigration wave), fled from Europe, carrying in their hearts a messianic vision, either religious or utopian. (True, the early Zionists were mostly atheists, but religious traditions had a powerful influence on their vision.) The founders of American society were "pilgrims", the Zionists immigrants called themselves "olim" - short for olim beregel, pilgrims. Both sailed to a "promised land", believing themselves to be God's chosen people.

Both suffered a great deal in their new country. Both saw themselves as "pioneers", who make the wilderness bloom, a "people without land in a land without people". Both completely ignored the rights of the indigenous people, whom they considered sub-human savages and murderers. Both saw the natural resistance of the local peoples as evidence of their innate murderous character, which justified even the worst atrocities. Both expelled the natives and took possession of their land as the most natural thing to do, settling on every hill and under every tree, with one hand on the plow and the Bible in the other.

True, Israel did not commit anything approaching the genocide performed against the Native Americans, nor anything like the slavery that persisted for many generations in the US. But since the Americans have repressed these atrocities in their consciousness, there is nothing to prevent them from comparing themselves to the Israelis. It seems that in the unconscious mind of both nations there is a ferment of suppressed guilt feelings that express themselves in the denial of their past misdeeds, in aggressiveness and the worship of power.

HOW IS it that a man like Obama, the son of an African father, identifies so completely with the actions of former generations of American whites? It shows again the power of a myth to become rooted in the consciousness of a person, so that he identifies 100% with the imagined national narrative. To this may be added the unconscious urge to belong to the victors, if possible.

Therefore, I do not accept without reservation the speculation: "Well, he must talk like this in order to get elected. Once in the White House, he will return to himself."

I am not so sure about that. It may well turn out that these things have a surprisingly strong hold on his mental world.

Of one thing I am certain: Obama's declarations at the AIPAC conference are very, very bad for peace. And what is bad for peace is bad for Israel, bad for the world and bad for the Palestinian people.

If he sticks to them, once elected, he will be obliged to say, as far as peace between the two peoples of this country is concerned: "No, I can't!"

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Shlensky
Rebecca Vilkomerson
Alistair Welchman
Jewish Peace News archive and blog: http://jewishpeacenews.blogspot.com
Jewish Peace News sends its news clippings only to subscribers. To subscribe, unsubscribe, or manage your subscription, go to http://www.jewishpeacenews.net


Anonymous said...

There's another possible interpretation to Obama's fawning at the AIPAC meeting--namely, his expectation of a Swift Boat attack that will link him to Palestinians such as the scholar Rashid Khalidi and replays of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons in which Wright supports Palestinian grievances. The Swift Boaters are already saying that Obama is a Muslim and implying that he has links to terrorists, and in the eyes of the far right and their media accomplices, all Palestinians are terrorists. Obama doesn't need AIPAC for fundraising. He has a formidable Internet fundraising campaign. He probably thinks he has to put considerable distance between himself and his past. It's up to us to keep up the pressure and education so that he has to respond to an activist base that won't tolerate continuing sellouts of Palestinian rights.

Anonymous said...

You also have to take into account that many evangelicals support Israel and a united Jerusalem as evidence of the second coming. Just watch any evangelical tv show--be it the 700 Club or otherwise, and you will see undivided support for Israel. Obama is trying to persuade younger evangelicals to support him, as well as attempting to make inroads into the Southern US, where many reside. To do this, he has to show a hawkish side towards Israel.

Dick Platkin said...

The real reason for Obama to the attend AIPAC conference and give a speech demonstrating alignment with the Likud was to secure financial support, not votes. Most Jewish voters are reflexively Democratic and liberal on most issues. It is unlikely many of them would vote for McCain because Obama did not meet an AIPAC/Likud litmus test.

In fact, like the American public, they are far more progressive than the elected officials, administrators, think tanks, financiers, and pundits who run the Democratic Party.