The Goat!

Image: U.S. President Obama smiles while he addresses students at the Jerusalem Convention Center in Jerusalem
Greatest Of All Times

Barack Obama In Israel

As is the case with so many essays published at Commentaries On The Times, the present essay came to me serendipitously, like a revelation from on high.  I had just finished watching a video of President Obama’s speech before students and other selected quest in Israel, and marveling at his political skills as he wooed and won the audience; who gave him repeated and boisterous standing ovations.

I got the feeling that I was watching the most gifted politician in American history.  Then I heard a guest on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, discussing his new book about forgotten US Presidents who had left their mark on American civilization, and was confirmed in that feeling.

When he was asked if he thought President Obama would be remembered, the author quickly pointed out that Barack Obama will be remembered if only because he is the first African/American President.  But then he went on to enumerate the President’s monumental achievements – saving the world economy from ruin, rescuing the US auto-industry, the Affordable Health Care Act, The Lilly Ledbetter Act, Icing Osama bin Laden, etc – and assured us they will never be forgotten.

As Erhardt talked I kept thinking about the President’s speech, and how Bibi Netanyahu was getting a dose of what the reactionary Republicans have been getting at the hands of this highly intelligent, profoundly humane, visionary, virtuoso at the art of politics.

For just as in America, Barack was winning the intelligent youths of Israel and touching the heart strings of all Israeli’s who dream of a peaceful future with their Arab neighbors.  It was not long before Bibi, Barack’s former antagonist, assumed a lips to posterior posture and maintained it for the balance of the President’s visit.  Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows.

Barack and Bibi in Israel
Barack and Bibi
Watch the hands: Who’s Listening to whom?

Taking a trip to Israel was viewed as an act akin to walking unarmed into a lion’s den by many astute observers from all over the American political spectrum. The right wing Republican infotainment complex was so certain the trip would be a disaster for the President that FOX NEWS – the flagship media shill of the Grand Obstructionist Party- was running advertisements for an upcoming program exposing President Obama’s hatred for Israel, hosted by that greasy headed numbskull charlatan Sean Hannity.  Unfortunately for them, the ad debuted just as the President was being addressed as “Dear Barack” by Israeli in a ceremony where he was conferred Israel’s highest civilian award…no other American President has received this honor.

 Israel Honors Barack

Barack being Honored in Israel

Simon Perez Places ….Medal on President Obama

Although such a reception would have been newsworthy during the best of times in the US Israeli relationship, it was especially remarkable now.  Just a couple of months ago Prime Minister Netanyahu brazenly attempted to interfere in the US presidential election by showing an open preference for his old Boston business partner Mitt Romney.  But when Obama won reelection it almost finished Netanyahu’s political career.

Among the most important duties of any Israeli Prime minister is to manage and maintain good relations with the US, without whose largess Israel’s security is compromised, and Netanyahu’s disrespectful treatment of President Obama had imperiled that critical relationship.  It almost cost Netanyahu the last election a few weeks ago. And this blunder was followed by the recent attempt to block the President’s nomination of former Republican Senator and decorated combat veteran Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, led by the US Israel Lobby, an appointment that is now a fait accompli.

The speeches Barack Obama presented on his Mid-East sojourn were models of political acumen; they were designed to advance his goal of working out a solution to the intractable Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  And this is the basis upon which they must be judged, not one’s pet ideological peeves.  And the nit picking of academic historians, though accurate in factual detail, may well-represent a cure that is worse than the disease, in that it will sacrifice today’s progress on the altar of yesterday’s truths.

Of course thoughtful people who are familiar with the facts about the Middle-East will disagree with the substance of some of the President’s assertions, and others will question the symbolism of some of his acts – like placing a stone from the monument honoring Dr. Martian Luther King on the tomb of Theodore Hertzel, the founder of Modern Zionism; who was a racial nationalist and thus was far more like Minister Farrakhan than Reverend King, although pro-Zionist Jews will be quick to deny this fact.

It comes as no surprise that many of the President’s critics on the left were cynical about the trip altogether.  In an article titled “Why Obama’s Israel Trip is One Big Mistake” published on  Slate.Com,  Janine Zachariah scoffs at the President’s attempt to win over the Israeli’s and assures us: “If Obama wants to talk about drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israel Defense Forces or the price of apartments in Tel Aviv, he’ll find an audience. Those relatively marginal issues are what dominated Israel’s recent election, not the future with the Palestinians.” 

As usual, the hysterics on the left are wrong in their snarky critiques of the President.  Ms. Zachariah presents a laundry list of charges against Israel, which in her opinion nullifies any reason the President may have for visiting the Jewish nation.  Yet she offers no explanation as to how Barack will be able to address these complex issues without winning over substantial portions of the Israeli and American electorates.

It is as if the left yearns for a dictator who can issue a directive and the machinery of state act upon it the way the Catholic bureaucracy responds to an encyclical from the Pope, or the Chinese Communist Party carried out to the dictums of Chairman Mao without opposition.

But this is the USA, and we have a divided government in which the power of the executive is checked by the countervailing power of the legislature.  Hence the President will need the cooperation of Congress in order to successfully address the complex issues outlined by Ms. Zachariah, and he won’t get it if the Israel Lobby can successfully paint him as an enemy of Israel.

However, as is characteristic of the President’s critics on the left, Ms. Zachariah does not take the political opposition into account.  And as I have pointed out ad nauseum: That’s why the American left is confined to the status of a national debating society throwing verbal spitballs from the sidelines of American politics.  They are not even in the game where real power is exercised.

However as President of the United States Barack Obama is in the arena grappling with these monumental problems, trying to make deals that will further his objectives of peace and justice in the Middle East.  Which means his tactics must accommodate political reality, the commentariat can say whatever they want.  And even if he does not succeed he will have done no worse than all the American presidents before him.  But let’s not count him out just yet; for Barack is no ordinary politician.

The President’s political gifts were prominently on display during his Israeli Sojourn.  He beguiled the Israeli’s with his infectious charm, sun shine smile and moving eloquence.  And, Contrary to Ms. Zachariah’s prediction, he did talk about the future of the Palestinian people, in fact he called for the birth of a Palestinian State…and he was greeted with tumultuous applause. After effusive praise of Israel’s virtues and the history of Jewish suffering, the President told the audience:

There is no question that Israel has faced Palestinian factions who turned to terror, and leaders who missed historic opportunities. That is why security must be at the center of any agreement. And there is no question that the only path to peace is through negotiation. That is why, despite the criticism we’ve received, the United States will oppose unilateral efforts to bypass negotiations through the United Nations.

But the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. 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.”

The reaction of Haaretz, Israel’s leading newspaper, is a measure of the way Israeli’s responded to the President’s speech.

“For Barack Obama to come to Jerusalem, and speak to Israeli students and talk persuasively of the possibility of a secure and peaceful future, for him to do that and garner a roaring ovation of approval, he would have to have given one hell of a speech. He did.  This was the speech that these young Israelis not only needed but wanted to hear. A speech that radically redefined centrism in Israel, bringing it down to extraordinary common denominators in directions Israelis have learned to think of as diametrically opposed.  He spoke of security and peace as inextricably and necessarily linked, not a narrow choice between options, but a conscious choice for both.  They roared.”

The article went on to point out that the Israeli college students President Obama was speaking to were different from American students in important ways.

“This was not the student crowd that Obama is used to. These students are Israelis. This is a crowd that is world-weary, hair-trigger volatile. They have come by it honestly. In comparison to their American counterparts, they are, by and large, older by several years – some would say, several lifetimes. They enter college after years in the military, often followed by the escape-valve rehab of a marathon trek to remote continents.

They know a snow job when they hear it. And the rare times when someone makes a sincere and enormous effort to understand them, to see things from their point of view, and to bring them a message that no leader in Israel has managed to bring them, they know that too.”

The praise for President Obama becomes ever more effusive, and ends with this observation “This is not the same country after this speech. Four years from now, when he hands back the White House, Barack Obama should consider a change of direction, even a change of venue. Let him run here. It’s about time we knew again what a real leader was like.”

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Of all the reasons given for the affinity between the USA and Israel, one of the major reasons is never mentioned: their mutual origins as colonial settler states.  Perhaps this is because of the fundamental character of these societies: which is the massive land theft and displacement of the indigenous populations by force and the establishment of a racial caste system in which the invaders become the ruling elite.  This is true whether we are talking about the creation of the USA by Englishmen in the 18th century; the Republic of Liberia by Afro-Americans in the 19th century; or the state Israel in the 20th century. 

However if we simply changed the word “Arabs” to “Indians” this observation on the founding of Israel by  the great Zionist warrior, Moshe Dayan – in a 1969 speech in Haifa, quoted from quoted in Ha’aretz, April 4, 1969, could well have been made by an American statesman.

“We came here to a country that was populated by Arabs and we are building here a Hebrew, a Jewish state; instead of the Arab villages, Jewish villages were established. You even do not know the names of those villages, and I do not blame you because these villages no longer exist. There is not a single-Jewish settlement that was not established in the place of a former Arab Village.” ­

The similarities between the Israeli and American experience with nation building can be easily seen in the fact that American cities from Chicago Illinois, to Tecumseh Michigan, to Chicopee Massachusetts are named after the Indian villages that once resided upon this land before it was stolen by white invaders from Europe.

President Obama was no more candid in his discussion of the founding of Israel than any of the US presidents who have preceded him.  And the reason is simple: it contradicts the Master Narrative, i.e. the national myth of their civilization…hence neither Israeli nor American Leaders are anxious to discuss the real story of their nation’s founding.

Phillip Weiss, an American Jewish journalist, published an article titled It’s Time for the Media to Talk about Zionism on the World News Daily Information Clearing House, a website that bills itself as offering “News you won’t find on CNN or Fox News.”  Mr. Weiss excoriated the major American media for its lack of objective reporting and candid commentary on the state of Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians.  In this criticism he is joined by a host of brilliant Jewish critics of Israel and the one sided reportage on the question of Palestinian rights and national aspirations.

Don’t ask don’t tell is the rule regarding the crimes against the indigenous peoples that were essential to the founding of America and Israel.  But unlike Native Americans, the seizure of Palestinian lands occurred in the Middle of the 20th century, when genocidal invasions were unacceptable; largely as a result of the furor over the Jewish holocaust in Germany.   The Palestinians are 20th century victims of land hungry settler/colonialists, and they have been waging a protracted war against Israel for over half a century.

Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is also the root cause of their problems with Iran.  And President Obama’s position on Iran will not help the situation.  While he is resisting Netanyahu’s blatant attempt to persuade him to commit the US to a military conflict with the Persian nation, he has nevertheless adopted the Israeli view of the threat to the national security of the US and Israel, which is more propaganda than truth, more fiction than fact.

When I consider Israel’s security, I also think about a people who have a living memory of the Holocaust, faced with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iranian government that has called for Israel’s destruction. It’s no wonder Israelis view this as an existential threat. But this is not simply a challenge for Israel – it is a danger for the entire world, including the United States. It would raise the risk of nuclear terrorism, undermine the non-proliferation regime, spark an arms race in a volatile region, and embolden a government that has shown no respect for the rights of its own people or the responsibilities of nations.

That is why America has built a coalition to increase the cost to Iran of failing to meet their obligations. The Iranian government is now under more pressure than ever before, and that pressure is increasing. It is isolated. Its economy is in a dire condition. Its leadership is divided. And its position – in the region, and the world – has only grown weaker.

First of all, Iran has not grown weaker because the misguided American attack on Iraq has empowered the Shiites, which is a de-facto extension of the power and influence of Iran in the region and would make a war with Iran infinitely more difficult than the Iraq war, in which the US deployed troops for ten years at a cost of two trillion dollars!  It was the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history…an attack on Iran will prove worse!

If the Iraq war was folly, an American war with Iran initiated by Israel would be an exercise in self-mutilation: a disaster for US relations in the region, and on the home front because it would wreck the US economy. Furthermore the President’s contention that Iran acquiring an atomic bomb “would raise the risk of nuclear terrorism, undermine the non-proliferation regime,” is dishonest hyperbole that will not advance the goal of peace in the Middle East – since everybody knows that Israel has a formidable nuclear arsenal yet refuses to even sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and thus do not allow inspections on its soil.

This attitude will result in a permanent state of hostility with their Muslim neighbors, which has caused Israel to become a garrison state, ever vigilant at the possibility of violence. And it shall remain so as long as the question of Palestinian sovereignty is unresolved.  Hence it is the possibility of peace offered by President Obama that inspired the most fervent hope and tumultuous applause

 

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
March 30, 2013

 

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