Is Obama a True Friend of Israel?
By Riaz Haq
President-elect Barack H. Obama has finally broken his silence by expressing his "deep concern" about mounting civilian casualties as the carnage in Gaza continued into the second week. He added he would have plenty more to say after he takes office on January 20, 2009.
Is Obama a true friend and a genuine ally of the state of Israel? This question was asked repeatedly during the presidential election campaign of 2008. As expected, each presidential candidate vied with the rest to prove their credentials to AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee aka the all powerful Israel lobby) by offering unconditional and unqualified support to Israel. In fact, Obama went beyond all other candidates by declaring at an AIPAC conference, where all of the presidential hopefuls lined up, that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided". "Let me be clear," he said, "Israel's security is sacrosanct. It is non-negotiable. The Palestinians need a state that is contiguous and cohesive and that allows them to prosper. But any agreement with the Palestinian people must preserve Israel's identity as a Jewish state, with secure, recognized and defensible borders. Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided," he added, in an effort to secure the Jewish vote. Later, Obama backtracked from his controversial statement about Jerusalem.
Let's examine seriously what it means to be a friend of Israel in practical terms. Does it mean slavishly echoing the position of Israeli government and AIPAC without much thought? Or does it require the US to behave like a friend who tells Israel the truth, no matter how unpleasant, to help make life better for both Israel and the US in an increasingly enraged world?
Looking at the long, checkered history of America's involvement as a peace broker, there have been only two American presidents who can claim any measure of tangible success: President Jimmy Carter and President George H.W. Bush, the father of the outgoing president George W. Bush. President Carter is credited with the Camp David Accord that resulted in peace between Israel and Egypt in the1970s, while President Bush Sr. initiated the Madrid Mideast Peace Conference in 1991 that led to the Oslo Accord in 1993. Since the mid-1990s, there has been no progress toward resolving any outstanding issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Neither Clinton nor Bush showed the kind of courage required to tell the Jewish state what it must do to reach a viable peace accord that allows both Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace side by side. Their rhetoric never really matched their actions. According to reliable sources, each proposal by Clinton and Bush Jr. was first shared with Israel and only after its modifications and approval by Israel was it presented to the Palestinians. In every major or minor dispute, the US openly and vocally sided with Israel. Both Clinton and Bush took the easy way out by heaping scorn and criticism on the Palestinians and by failing to press the Israelis to make any substantial concessions, while Israel continued to build and expand settlements on Palestinian lands as facts-on-the-ground. In fact, it would be accurate to say that things have never been as bad as they are today. The worsening situation has been a boon for Al Qaeda and Taliban recruiting and it has fueled anti-American sentiments throughout the world, particularly in the Muslim world.
What is it that former presidents Carter and Bush Sr. did that has been missing lately? In the words of former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami who said in 2006 that Carter and Bush succeeded because they were "ready to confront Israel head-on and overlook the sensibilities of her friends in America." If Barack H. Obama is a true friend of Israel, he should be warning Israel about the danger of becoming an apartheid state, just as Carter had.
I suspect Obama will try and test how far he can push the Israelis to make concessions that are in their own best interest to reach durable peace in the Middle East. But he will have to deal with AIPAC that has been the main obstacle to any real and meaningful progress toward peace in the Middle East. Ultimately, Obama will have to decide if he is willing to take the risk of becoming another one-term president, like Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.