President Obama’s Middle East visit

By Farhang Jahanpour

After a great deal of criticism from Israeli leaders and pro-Israeli groups in the United States for not having visited Israel during his first term, President Barack Obama chose Israel as the first point of call at the beginning of his second term. Despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s overt interference in the US presidential election and open support for his old friend, the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Netanyahu was rewarded not only with the first visit in the second term, but also with effusive praise for Israel and its policies.

Many pundits have regarded President Obama’s visit to Israel as a wasted opportunity and indeed as a depressing spectacle, because it finally admitted the failure and the total abandonment of US mediation for a two-state solution. At the beginning of his first term, Obama gave top priority to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and made determined efforts to achieve that goal. In various speeches he rightly pointed out that continued settlement activity and the erosion of the remaining Palestinian territory would be an obstacle to peace, and he openly called on Israel to stop further violating international law by stealing more Palestinian land. Netanyahu’s response to all that pleading was downright rejection and deliberate provocation.

Indeed, in order to drive the message home and humiliate the US Administration, on the day that Vice-President Joe Biden was visiting Israel, Netanyahu’s government announced the construction of 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem, which Arabs hope would form the capital of a future Palestinian state. That open insult to the US president and vice-president was followed by a congressional invitation to Netanyahu to address both Houses of Congress. During his speech in which he trashed anything that was left of the so-called “Peace Process” he received an unprecedented number of standing ovations by the adoring congressmen and congresswomen, more than any US president could ever hope for.

Wiring in the Haaretz, Gideon Levy wrote:
“It was an address with no destination, filled with lies on top of lies and illusions heaped on illusions. Only rarely is a foreign head of state invited to speak before Congress. It’s unlikely that any other has attempted to sell them such a pile of propaganda and prevarication, such hypocrisy and sanctimony as Benjamin Netanyahu did yesterday. The fact that the Congress rose to its feet multiple times to applaud him says more about the ignorance of its members than the quality of their guest’s speech.”

This brave Israeli journalist rightly concluded: “Last night we saw that the Americans will buy anything, or at least their applauding legislators will.”

Faced with such uncritical Congressional support for the head of a client state, there was nothing President Obama could have done. After he was browbeaten by Netanyahu and attacked by the Israeli lobby for “having thrown Israel under the bus”, President Obama abandoned his seemingly futile efforts to act as an honest broker and to check further Israeli expansionism.
While America has always demanded prompt and strict adherence to UN Security Council resolutions from all other countries, especially Iran and Arab countries, in the case of Israel, she has adopted the charade of the “Peace Process”, except that this process is as long as a piece of string – it has already lasted for nearly 50 years – and instead of proceeding forward it is moving backwards.

Resolution 242
Resolution 242 (S/RES/242) was adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council on November 22, 1967, in the aftermath of the pre-emptive Six-Day War. The preamble refers to the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East in which every State in the area can live in security.” Operative Paragraph One “Affirms that the fulfillment of Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East which should include the application of both the following principles:

Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;
(ii) Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”1)

It also called for “achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem.”

During all these decades, not only have the demands of the resolution not been met, Israel has further colonized the West Bank and Jerusalem and has expanded illegal settlements. At the moment, there are more than 600,000 illegal Israeli settlers on Palestinian lands.

Depressing press conference
During his press conferences with the Israeli president and prime minister, President Obama did not call on them to live up to their international obligations. Last year, speaking at the UN General Assembly, President Obama said that the Palestinians deserve a state of their own, but then stated that he would not support a UN mandate to that effect. Later on, along with only Canada, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, and Israel, the United States even voted against the resolution for Palestinian observer status, which passed with 174 votes.

President Obama visited Israel at a time when Netanyahu had been humiliated in the General Election and had only managed to cobble together a shaky coalition a few days before the presidential visit. His senior coalition partner Yair Lapid has spoken of the dreadful situation of the Israeli economy. Shortly after starting his work as finance minister, Lapid complained: “The picture that is slowly unfolding before me is a lot worse than I had expected… Don’t use words like ‘deficit’ or ‘fiscal crisis.’ I’m telling you that it’s simply a lot worse. I wanted to fix the house but discovered that our bank account is in overdraft. What kind of overdraft? Monstrous, ominous and growing.”2)

Although not a peacenik, Lapid is on record as saying that he is unhappy with wasting money on settlers.

Under such circumstances, the Rresident would have been able to demand publicly, at least, adherence to the provisions that Israel had agreed under President Clinton, namely a return to pre-1976 borders with minor adjustments, the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and the right of return for Palestinians who wished to return to the Palestinian state or to receive compensation.

Instead, during his public talks with Perez and Netanyahu, the president made all the points that the Israelis wanted to hear, but there was no serious discussion of the Peace Process or the plight of the Palestinians. Instead, he visited Israel’s national sites, including the Holocaust memorial, the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism who died more than four decades before the 1948 founding of Israel, and of the former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who was shot dead in 1996 by a Jewish fanatic opposed to his peace moves.

On the other hand, Netanyahu got everything that he wanted. On the issue of Syria, just prior to the president’s visit, there appeared a startling report alleging that Bashar Asad’s regime had used poison gas on Syrian rebels. Two Israeli Cabinet members claimed credible evidence, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said it “should be on the table in the discussions.” Sure enough, the first question during the president’s joint press conference with Netanyahu was that as the president had said that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a red line, what was he going to do about the Syrian regime’s use of those weapons.

President Obama rightly responded that all the facts were not available and that he had ordered an investigation about the use of chemical weapons. However, he added that he was deeply skeptical that it was the opposition that had used chemical weapons, and if it were proved that the regime had used gas it would be a game changer.

The second question was predictably about the red line regarding Iran. President Obama had said that Iran was at least a year away from producing a bomb. The questioner asked Obama if he was pressing the prime minister to be more patient and to hold off for at least a year before taking military action against Iran, and he also asked Netanyahu if he believed that the president’s threats against Iran were credible. Netanyahu kept repeating what he had said in Washington about Israel’s right to defend herself, and he said that he would not delegate that right to anyone including Israel’s best friend, America. By acquiescing to Netanyahu’s point and saying that there was no daylight between them, in practice, the president gave the green light to Netanyahu to engage in aggression.

Both Netanyahu and Obama stressed that the relations between the two governments are closer now than they have ever been. After repeating the mantra that Iran’s (non-existent) nuclear weapons posed an existential threat to Israel, Netanyahu kept repeating that President Obama had assured him that Israel was entitled to take any action necessary to defend herself.

President Obama in turn stressed that America’s policy towards Iran was not containment but the prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon, that the window of opportunity to resolve the dispute was narrow and that all options were on the table.
In contrast to his effusive words to his Israeli hosts, his statements to Palestinian leaders were totally unconvincing. Not only did he not visit Gaza, not only did he not address Palestinian youths, not only did he not refer to Palestinian prisoners who have been on hunger strike for a long time, he did not even acknowledge the compromises that the Palestinians have already made for the cause of peace. To call on the Palestinians to negotiate over the remaining 22 per cent of their traditional home, which is being speedily devoured by the settlers, is unrealistic.

Homeland for Jews, no homeland for Palestinians – according to Obama
He referred to Israel as the homeland of the Jews, but he failed to refer to it as the homeland of the Palestinians who have lived there for thousands of years. Let’s imagine that the Palestinians were suddenly prepared to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, would the settlers leave? Would Israeli forces pull out? Would Palestinians be able to have access to their lands and water resources? Would they be able to freely trade with the outside world? Certainly not.

However, I believe that despite the lack of any hard talk with Netanyahu, President Obama went over his host’s head and addressed young Israelis about his vision for the future.3) He told the new generation of Israelis that “Israel is at a crossroads.” He made three very important points to them: First, peace is necessary. Second, peace is just. Third, peace is possible.

He reminded them that they are the generation that has the opportunity to bring about permanent security or to face a growing challenge to its future. He asked his young audience to put themselves in the shoes of the Palestinians.
“It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own. Living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. It is not just when settle violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or displace Palestinian families from their homes. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”

These were powerful words that go against most of the rightwing Israeli narrative that even denies the existence of Palestine and is oblivious to the humiliation and the oppression that the Palestinians are subjected to. It is interesting that those sentences received the loudest applause from the audience. It shows that, unlike most of their elders, young Israelis are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

Changes in the Arab world
But perhaps the most important part of his speech was when he referred to “the changes sweeping the Arab world. I understand that with the uncertainly in the region – people in the streets, changes in leadership, the rise of non-secular parties – it’s tempting to turn inward, because the situation outside of Israel seems so chaotic. But this is precisely the time to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve and commitment for peace. Because as more governments respond to popular will, the days when Israel could seek peace simply with a handful of autocratic leaders, those days are over. Peace will have to be made among peoples, not just governments.”

As the result of Arab Awakening, the Israelis are no longer facing a few Arab dictators who can be told by the West what they should do. They are facing millions of young Arab men and women who, like them, are demanding change and want to live with dignity and in peace and security. The time for the tired old men with fixed ideas from the two sides fighting over their old shibboleths has come to an end. The time has come for Israeli, Arab and Iranian young people to talk to each other above the heads of their leaders and forge new peaceful relations.

The apology to Turkey
Another achievement of the visit – more for Israel than for Turkey and may be due to both governments’ approach to the crisis in Syria – was a half-hearted apology by Netanyahu to Erdogan for the attack by Israeli commandos in international waters on the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara that was trying to take provisions to the besieged Gazans, which resulted in the killing of eight Turkish nationals and one American citizen of Turkish heritage. The statement from Netanyahu’s office read: “In light of Israel’s investigation into the incident which pointed to a number of operational mistakes, the prime minister expressed Israel’s apology to the Turkish people for any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury and agreed to conclude an agreement on compensation/nonliability.”4) Many Israeli sources have already stated that this was not really an apology, but a statement of regret for “operational mistakes”. Allegedly, Israel will also pay $6 million to the victims’ families.

And Iran
During President Obama’s short visit to Jordan, in his joint press conference with King Abdullah II, a reporter reminded the president that he had frequently said during and before that trip, that all options were on the table, including military action to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. He asked if he was prepared for any retaliation or fallout that may come about as the result of Israeli actions against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and he asked King Abdullah II about the aftermath of any military action.

The president again repeated that he had said from the moment that he came to office that the best resolution of this situation was through diplomacy. If in fact the supreme leader believed that a nuclear weapon is un-Islamic, there should be a practical and verifiable way of ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program does not lead to building a bomb. He said that diplomatic solution should be the vision not threats to raise Israeli cities to the ground. This is a solvable problem if Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon program. King Abdullah in turn said that looking from a Jordanian point of view, due to the instability in Syria and in Iraq, any military action would open a Pandora’s box and that in view of all that was happening in the Middle East they do not need another war.

There are many people on all sides that are calling for war and bloodshed, but the most memorable part of President Obama’s visit to the Middle East was his upbeat message of hope, peace and reconciliation delivered to young Israeli students. They and their young counterparts in Iran and the Arab world will determine the future. Let us hope that they choose the path to peace.

TFF Associate Farhang Jahanpour is a tutor in Middle Eastern Studies at the Department of Continuing Education and a member of Kellogg College, Oxford.


1. Security Council Resolution 242

2. See “Lapid: Israel has monster overdraft, I’ll have to become ‘Mr. No’”, Haaretz, March 24, 2013

3. See “In full: President Obama’s speech to Israeli students in Jerusalem”, The Jewish Chronicle, March 25, 2013

4. See “Obama Brokers Apology From Netanyahu to Erdogan”, Al-Monitor, March 22, 2013

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