Sunday, November 7, 2010

US Division On Middle East Is Increasingly Apparent

By Adel Safty
This comment was published in Gulf News on 8/11/2010

Last week’s American midterm elections results were a clear setback for President Barack Obama, and he described them as humbling. They were also a clear victory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who seems to believe that a weakened Obama is good for Israel.

Republican control of the House of Representatives will weaken the ability of Obama to vigorously and actively pursue his peace agenda in the Middle East. And that is because the American Congress — already a strong bastion of uncritical support for Israel — is becoming even more staunchly supportive of Israel in remarkably incomprehensible ways that differ little from the extremist positions of the Israeli far right. This will expose a contradiction in American foreign policy in the Middle East, and complicate Obama’s quest for peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Consider two of the notable changes likely to happen in the new Congress.

First, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia — the only Jewish Republican in the House and potentially majority leader — will likely play an important role in shaping American foreign policy, particularly with regard to Israel. Cantor’s positions in this regard are practically indistinguishable from those of the far right in Israel. For instance, he combines ignorance of and contempt for international law with dogmatic convictions pregnant with ideology but devoid of commonsensical appreciation of the reality. Consider the following statement he reportedly made in July 2009:

“insistence that Israel return lands it has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day war and accept a ‘right of return’ of Palestinians who fled their homes in what is now Israel is just like saying you don’t accept the historical right of Israel to exist”.

Why should acceptance of the so-called Israel’s ‘historical right’ to exist be contingent upon a series of breaches of international law such as acquisition of territories by force, occupation, dispossession, colonisation, and denial of rights to the Palestinian people? Cantor does not say; he is interested in furthering the cause of the Israeli far right, not in reconciling his assertions with logic or legitimacy.

In fact, there are reasons to wonder whether Cantor really understands what he is saying or whether — in his zeal for Israel — he simply acts as a conduit for Israeli views communicated to him by the powerful pro-Israel organisation AIPAC. Last year, Cantor, then minority whip, and then House majority leader Steny H. Hoyer sent out an e-mail asking their colleagues to sign “the attached letter to President Obama regarding the Middle East peace process”.

The letter warns against pressuring Israel because “Israel will be taking the greatest risks in any peace agreement”. Nothing unusual here, except that the attachment to the e-mail was named “AIPAC Letter Hoyer Cantor May 2009.pdf”.

In their mindless support for Israel Cantor joined Hoyer in defending Israel’s merciless assault on Gaza. In an article in The Washington Times, they blame the Palestinian culture, which they describe as a culture that celebrates death. As for Israelis, they write, they “drop leaflets and make phone calls to Palestinian civilians in targeted areas, alerting the civilians, but forfeiting the element of surprise”. An assertion that flies in the face of documented reality of the Israeli assault, which Amnesty International called “22 days of death and destruction”, but which is consistent with Israeli propaganda.

It is worth recalling that the UN Goldstone Report concluded that the Gaza war was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population”.

Another Israel apologist

Second, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will likely be promoted to become chairperson of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. She will likely turn it into a standing platform for promoting more unconditional support for Israel. She will turn the committee into the source of inspiration for all sorts of anti-peace legislation and Congressional resolutions blaming the Palestinians and affirming Israel’s right to engage, with impunity, in all sorts of illegal acts.

The Palestinians stated that they would give Obama some time to get the derailed peace negotiations back on track. Obama’s attempts to do so will be hampered by the zealous attempts from the new Congress to derail such efforts, and the Palestinians and much of the international community will watch with disbelief the contradictory signals from Washington. On the one hand they have a president who stated that peace in the Middle East was a vital national interest of the US and promised to pursue it assertively and actively. On the other hand, they have a Congress determined to interfere and undermine the president’s efforts in order to advance the expansionist agenda of the anti-peace elements of the Israeli society.

Only Obama can resolve this contradiction by adopting a more assertive approach towards his recalcitrant ally. He has tried the carrot strategy by offering Netanyahu a remarkably generous package of incentives, including security guarantees, diplomatic support at the UN, and even the promise not to ask for any future moratoriums on colony construction, in return for the Israeli prime minister agreeing to extend the recently expired moratorium by 60 days. Humiliatingly for Obama, Netanyahu turned down the offer.

Obama has at his disposal a set of options that might be described as the stick strategy, the counterpart to the failed carrot strategy. It will not be the first time an American president successfully pressured Israel. Eisenhower pressured Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion into withdrawing from the Egyptian Sinai, which the Israelis had occupied during the 1956 Suez War. President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state James Baker threatened to cut off financial support if Israeli prime minister Itzhak Shamir continued to refuse to attend the Madrid Peace Conference, which was supposed to launch peace negotiations for a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East. Shamir gave in and came, but nothing of significance came out of the conference.

Obama tried diplomacy with Netanyahu and achieved little. It is time he tried Realpolitik. Only Washington has the necessary leverage to effectively bring about a change of behaviour in its stubborn ally.

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