BY ALEXANDER COCKBURN
It’s impossible to read the agenda for the Oval Office summit between Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas without laughing out loud at the absurdity of its pretensions. The American plan is that President Obama will inform Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, representing the Palestinian Authority, that this is make-or-break time for a peaceful settlement. The U.S. wants an agreement within a year, with the stipulations in this agreement to be phased in over a decade.
At issue: illegal Jewish settlements, the status of East Jerusalem, the treatment of Palestinian refugees and final borders between Israel and a Palestinian state.
The man greeting Netanyahu and Abbas is no longer the icon of change who aroused the world with his address to Muslims in Cairo and tasked former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell with setting the stage for a just settlement of issues that have remained unsettled for more than half a century.
Obama is now in poor political shape. The economy is spiraling down and the midterm elections loom as a possible bloodbath for Democrats, in which they may lose at least one, if not both, houses in Congress. As the Israel lobby knows well, the Democrats crave Jewish money and votes. When it comes to Israel’s interests, the U.S. Congress jumps to the lobby’s commands and ignores Obama’s.
Gone is any notion of twisting Netanyahu’s arm, or trying to, as when the administration criticized one illegal Jewish settlement four months ago and when Vice President Biden relayed in Tel Aviv Gen. Petraeus’ concerns that Israel’s obduracy was imperiling U.S. security interests in the region. The lobby struck back with political threats. With unusual frankness, Dana Milbank of The Washington Post described Netanyahu’s last visit to Washington thus:
“A blue-and-white Israeli flag hung from Blair House. Across Pennsylvania Avenue, the Stars and Stripes was in its usual place atop the White House. But to capture the real significance of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit with President Obama, White House officials might have instead flown the white flag of surrender.”
The tenor of Israeli politics today is one of fanatic rejectionism of any long-term cessation of settlements, any serious concession on borders, beyond a Palestinian “state” in small chunks, hemmed in by Israel’s highways and fences, with water diverted and communication between the various chunks of Palestinian territory under rigorous Israeli control. East Jerusalem as the proposed capital of a Palestinian state is under incessant invasion of new Jewish housing projects.
The Israeli press reports that Netanyahu has yet to evolve a negotiating position. His foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, refused to attend the summit and thinks Netanyahu should simply tell Obama that construction will continue without any restrictions in settlement blocs, after the present official moratorium ends Sept. 26.
For his part, Abbas is no longer president of the Palestinian Authority, which has no democratic mandate among the vast majority of Palestinians. They voted for Hamas and regard Abbas as a quisling who exists solely by the favor of U.S. money and Israeli support.
Tactically, Netanyahu has an easy hand to play in Washington. He can proclaim Israel’s hopes for peace, yet warn that Israel’s security interests are paramount. He can lecture Obama on Israel’s primal fears of obliteration, yet not be too reticent in indicating that Israel can obliterate its enemies and is quite prepared to do so. Israel’s nuclear arsenal will hover spectrally over the proceedings.
Then, on returning to Israel, he can allow settlements to go forward when the moratorium expires in three weeks, which in turn will prompt Abbas to threaten to act upon his commitment to abandon the talks if this occurs. Israel will continue its rightward lunge and talk of “transfer” – i.e., mass expulsion of Palestinians from Israel’s claimed borders – will grow apace. The Obama plan will join all the other diplomatic ruins in that desert of dry bones, which is the most conspicuous feature of all maps attempting to depict the search for a just solution in the Middle East.
Why is Obama even making the effort? As the historian Jeffrey Blankfort writes, “Every U.S. president since Nixon has made an effort to end Israel’s occupation for U.S. strategic reasons, and every one of them has run up against the Lobby and, in the end, proved unable or unwilling to spend the political capital that would be required to enforce their will on Israel. In every instance Congress has stood on Israel’s side and never more so than during the Obama administration. The three presidents that did challenge Israel, Ford, Carter, and Bush Sr., were eventually forced to retreat and were turned out at the polls.”
Now why, given this history, did Obama try his hand? Blankfort suspects that there was pressure from the U.S.’s European allies to do so, because “the continuance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict jeopardizes their security and societies far more than it does that of the U.S., and there have long been calls for the EU to activate its own ‘peace initiative,’ and it would be likely to do so if the U.S. withdrew from the field. This is the last thing that either Israel or the Lobby wants so that is why we see the Lobby elements in every administration, currently Ross, Emanuel, et al, making the push for Obama’s involvement even though they know it is bound to fail.”
Obama’s recent remodel of the Oval Office features a very cheesy carpet featuring uplifting quotations around its edge: FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; Martin Luther King Jr.’s “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”; Lincoln’s “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” and kindred chestnuts. When Palestinians are scheduled for a visit, they should roll the carpet up and bring out one with the Star of David right in the middle, and stitched round the edge, “Attention, Palestinians! Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
– Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, available through www.counterpunch.com.