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Alexander Cockburn
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Israel, Gaza and the United States -- What Will Obama Do?

Comment

President-elect Obama is getting whacked by the left for declining to comment on Israel's onslaught on Gaza, but his prudent silence is just as discomfiting to the Israeli government and its allies here in the United States. They wanted a ringing endorsement of their onslaught.

There were also hints in their demeanor on television that Obama's senior aides, like David Axelrod, were not overly delighted with Israel's state propagandists' headlining this remark of Obama's, made on a visit to Israel in the summer: "If somebody shot rockets at my house where my two daughters were sleeping at night, I'd do everything in my power to stop them."

On the campaign trail and, indeed, since he reached the Senate in 2005, no politician has been more sedulous than Barack Obama in ensuring that the Israel lobby here had no cause for disquiet. On arrival in Washington, he instantly selected Sen. Joe Lieberman, known informally as the senator from Israel, as his mentor. At the annual conference this last summer of the very powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama drew criticism from across a broad political spectrum for his groveling.

"Israel should get whatever it wants, and an undivided Jerusalem should be its capital," Obama assured the American Jewish delegates, many of them influential Democrats from across the United States. The next day, one of his foreign policy advisers hastily issued a clarification to the effect that Obama believes "Jerusalem is a final-status issue, which means it has to be negotiated between the two parties" as part of "an agreement that they both can live with." The aide refused to rule out such possibilities as Jerusalem also serving as the capital of a Palestinian state or Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods.

So, is there any evidence that when he sits down in the Oval Office, Obama will try to set a new course?

On the left, professor Noam Chomsky remarked recently, "With Obama, Israel and less than 2 percent of the American population is now in full control of the American government."

It's certainly true that the minute the new Obama administration were to make any move, however tentative, deemed "anti-Israel" by the massed legions of the Israel lobby — stretching from Vice President Joe Biden's and Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to about 98 percent of Congress, the major newspapers and TV networks, the think tanks in Washington, and the big Democratic Party funders — political mayhem would break loose. The White House would see its prime political enterprise, the economic recovery program, immediately held hostage.

It's also true that both Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have in the past evinced sympathy for Palestinian aspirations: the former photographed with his wife, Michelle, in what was obviously an amiable meeting with the late Edward Said, America's best known Palestinian, and Hillary Clinton publicly embracing Yasir Arafat. It seems safe to say that, unlike Bush Jr., neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton have any rootedly ideological or religious commitment to the Zionist cause. Political self-preservation and advancement form the leaven in their loyalty and will remain predominant.

But if the power of the Israel lobby here in the United States is as obstructive as ever to the formation of any equitable domestic policy to address Palestinian aspirations, the international situation does offer opportunity and demands a shift.

Although ruthless and horrifying, Israel's onslaughts on Gaza are evidently an expression of weakness in a quest for military credibility forced by the imminence of elections in Israel, just as Shimon Peres, in similarly dire straits, launched Operation "Grapes of Wrath" against Lebanon before an election (which his party lost) in 1996. Bombardment, as always, unites the population on the receiving end and rallies it around its political leaders, assuming they don't run away.

In the end, Israel will stop the bombing, and what will it achieve beyond another exhibition of futile strategy, like the attack on Lebanon in 2006? The last time Israel had an effective military campaign that could be called a victory was 27 years ago, in the 1982 attack on Lebanon. Hamas has been greatly strengthened by the current attack, and the status of President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirmed as a spineless collaborator with Israel — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak likewise. Syria and Turkey are alienated from Western designs; Hezbollah and Iran vindicated by the world condemnation of Israel's barbarous conduct. For months, Israel besieged Gaza, starving its civilian inhabitants of essential supplies with almost no effective international reproach. It's hard to take dramatic photographs of an empty medicine bottle but easy to film a bombed-out girl's dorm or a Palestinian mother weeping over the bodies of her five dead daughters, featured on the front page of the Washington Post this week.

Israel's current crop of leaders are second-raters, and conditions are ripe for a forceful push from the United States, assuming that the new administration has the requisite modicum of courage and ingenuity — a very long bet, as bitter experience for nearly 40 years instructs us.

In the dying moments of his administration, Bill Clinton nearly brokered a successful deal between Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government and Yasser Arafat. Hillary Clinton certainly knows that the story of Arafat walking away from "the best possible deal" is a myth fostered by Israel and that it was Barak, facing elections, who collapsed the deal at the Taba summit. Everybody knows what the contours of a settlement should be. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, on his way out of office, put it flatly in his famous October interview in Yediot Aharonot: "We must reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the essence of which is that we shall actually withdraw from almost all the territories, if not from all the territories. Ö Anyone who wants to keep all the territory of (Jerusalem) will have to put 270,000 Arabs behind fences within sovereign Israel. That won't work."

In that same interview, Olmert said of his previous 30 years as a politician, apropos the Palestinian question, "I was not ready to look into all the depths of reality." Will Obama and Clinton confront reality? America's changing and weakening circumstances will prompt them to do so. If Obama wants to be judged as anything more than a partisan of the Israel lobby, he will have to make the attempt. That said, no one who has followed U.S. policy in the Middle East with any attention since the Six Day War in 1967 should discard profound pessimism as the anchor for all assessments.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor 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. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.



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