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"From Talk to Change: The Test for President
Obamas Israel-Palestine Policy" by Peter Gruskin
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Palestine Center Brief No. 175
By Peter Gruskin*
Much has been said of the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians under U.S.
President Barack Obama's administration. Although it is too early to tell exactly how American policy
will unfold, many are pessimistic given the ambiguous political circumstances, with the dominance of
the right-wing in Israeli politics and the lack of clarity in Obama's declarations and moves, both as a
candidate and in his short time in office. Optimists, on the other hand, consider an Obama
administration the best chance for encouraging a peaceful resolution. They argue if anyone can break
from the American record of unwavering commitment to Israel's policies, it is this president. This
essay contends that the best test for how much change there is in U.S. policy is the extent to which
American policymakers disagree with their Israeli counterparts.
On the Campaign Trail
Political commentators debated Barack Obama's past views on Israel-Palestine, mostly during the
2008 election. Many in the Republican Party, as well as some pro-Israel activists and pundits, feared
that Obama was "anti-Israel" by virtue of his associations.
If they did not explicitly state this, they
pointed to his alleged ties to "radicals" critical of America and Israel, such as William Ayers, Rashid
and Reverend Jeremiah Wright. This was, of course, in the context of a heated presidential
campaign. The Republican presidential candidate U.S. Senator John McCain, by and large, stayed
away from such criticism in his public pronouncements.
These commentators may have been wrong to the extent that understanding the plight of the
Palestinian people is not the same as being "anti-Israel." Regardless, there is evidence that Obama
was cognizant of the Palestinian narrative. Ali Abunimah, co-editor of
Electronic Intifada
and a
Palestine Center fellow, knew Obama from the activist scene in Chicago. He claims he spoke to
Obama at a 2000 campaign fundraiser at which Obama called for an even-handed approach to the
Israel-Palestine conflict. Obama also, according to Abunimah, went to a community fundraiser in
1998 at which Palestinian academic Edward Said was the keynote speaker.
In college, Obama was a
student of Professor Said at Columbia University.
Indeed, Obama drew some political inspiration from leftist critics of U.S. foreign policy, such as the
radical organizer Saul Alinsky,
as well as from critics of Israel, such as the international financier
George Soros. Some who knew Obama from his pre-Senate days claim that he was somewhat
sympathetic to the Palestinians. One such person, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, claims that Obama used
to be "on the line of Peace Now He was a moderate peacenik [before getting further into politics]."
One reason for the sustained speculation is the lack of clarity and consistency in Obama's positions
and statements. In March 2007, the candidate told a small group in Iowa, "Nobodys suffering more
than the Palestinian people."
This statement was later qualified
just as he corrected his remark
about Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem
at a speech to AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs
Committee) in June 2008. His public pronouncements in support of Israel's 2006 war against Lebanon
and his statement that Israel's recent offensive in Gaza was self-defense demonstrated his vocal
commitment to Israel. As a candidate, he sought to comfort pro-Israel voters and projected himself as
a pro-Israel candidate. Yet, at the same time, he provided kernels of hope to those seeking a more
honest and impartial American engagement in the region by speaking of the need for change
generally in American foreign policy and promising to put Israel-Palestinian peace at the top of his
This triangulation led some Israel supporters to argue that he, as a candidate, was untrustworthy. For
example, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Danny Ayalon, wrote in an op-ed to the
that Obama's candidacy was cause for "some degree of concern."
The triangulation did not just worry advocates for Israel. Many pro-Palestinian activists believed
President Obama catered to the Israel lobby for electoral purposes and will most likely continue
America's pro-Israel agenda. During his AIPAC speech, which many observed, he made no references
to "settlements," "occupation" or "territorial compromise."
His repeated calls for a two-state
solution have not impressed these critics, as presidents before him have said the same. President
Obama recognizes, as he said in his interview with Al-Arabiya shortly after taking office, that he will
be judged for his actions not his words.
Although there is a debate right now about U.S. policy towards Hamas, Obama's statements during
the campaign did not give much hope to those who prefer a more realistic approach of engagement.
He remarked on the campaign trail, while talking to a group of Palestinians, that the U.S. will never
recognize winning Hamas candidates until the group renounces its mission to destroy Israel. Obama
claims he told this to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a 2006 meeting.
In his January 2008
letter to UN ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, he expressed qualified support for the Israeli bombing of
Gaza. He wrote, "Israel has the right to respond while seeking to minimize any impact on civilians."
A perfect example of his attempt at balance is in this same letter: "We all are worried about the
consequences of the blockade on Palestinian families. Nonetheless, we must understand why Israel
is forced to do this."
In Office
There is disagreement over whether President Obama is going to be even-handed and fair. The test is
how hard Obama is going to push Israel on issues such as the settlements (whose expansion Israel
sought to hide publicly), Palestinian control of East Jerusalem, the borders, a Palestinian unity
government, the refugee quagmire and Palestinian sovereignty. For too long, American officials
merely echoed Israeli positions. The extent of the difference between the Obama administration's
policy and the next Israeli government will determine how much change there actually is.
Besides his well-publicized symbolic gestures--calling Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas first,
appearing on Al-Arabiya and the $20 million in aid sent to the Gaza Strip--he took the bold step of
naming George Mitchell as a Middle East envoy. While these moves certainly signal the potential for
change, the question of how far the administration will confront the anti-peace agenda of certain
prominent elements within Israel's political establishment, especially those most empowered by the
recent election, is an open one.
Skeptics argue that even if he is serious about peacemaking, Obama will be constrained by the Israeli
lobby. Pro-Israel lobby groups provided him over $110,000 from 2000 to June 2006 alone.
Furthermore, he has chosen a rabidly pro-Israel Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, to oversee the
implementation of his policies and to advise on political moves. His silence on the Gaza conflict
before his inauguration was another hint. Despite the positive steps he took, he still affirms Israeli
positions on the Gaza offensive and the cause of the conflict at-large; for instance, that Israel acts out
of security and that Palestinian militants are the source of the current conflagration. Others argue
that the two-state solution, the end goal President Obama has affirmed, is past its moment in history.
The more optimistic argue Obama has a firm understanding of the need for a constructive American
approach and is just playing politics with rhetoric to appeal to pro-Israel sentiments. They think
Obama will outreach to both sides and put the necessary pressure on Israel and the Palestinians in
order to lessen the tensions between the two. They also argue that a negotiated settlement is
necessary for American interests in the region and is thus inevitable. For holders of this view, any
parties seeking a just resolution should embrace the Obama administration with hope, even if
expectations are low.
As a candidate, Barack Obama used some degree of political triangulation to appear balanced yet
sufficiently pro-Israel in order to sustain political support from an indispensable constituency and
lobby network. Yet, in his first weeks in office, he made interesting and noteworthy moves that rub
against his election rhetoric. However, none of them indicate a break from the traditional U.S.-Israel