Shmuel Amir – Two Speeches: Obama in Conflict with Netanyahu?

17 June, 2009 – Hagada Hasmalit, Translated from Hebrew by George Malent

Netanyahu’s speech [of 14 June 2009] was perceived in Israel and the world as a reply to Obama’s speech in Cairo, and as such it has provoked a great deal of interest.

The content of the speech itself was fairly typical of those given by previous prime ministers, its primary purpose being to explain to the world, Israelis included, that it is impossible to put an end to the occupation and settlement. The reason for this is not “God forbid!” that Israel wants to continue the occupation and settlement. The reason is that the perfidious Palestinians make it impossible for Israel to do so. At Camp David almost ten years ago, Ehud Barak announced that he wanted to return nearly everything to the Palestinians but was stymied by the fact that he had no partner. True, he added, we too have some conditions for achieving peace and ending the occupation, but our demands are only for the annexation of a minimum of Palestinian lands needed to preserve our “security.”

Netanyahu’s speech, which he himself characterized as “courageous and honest,” did indeed offer the Palestinians a Palestinian state. True, he added, it has to be demilitarized – even though its neighbour is armed to the teeth, the Palestiniaans must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Jerusalem must remain “undivided,” and there will be no talking with Hamas – even though Hamas was elected democratically. Netanyahu did not mention the 1967 borders, or the right of return, or the peace proposal of the Arab League. The word “occupation” did not cross his lips: he spoke only of the “presence” of our forces.

Netanyahu rejected Obama’s public appeal to freeze construction in the settlements since “we have to continue to provide for the normal needs of the settlements.”

There is no reason at all to discuss this proposal, which is lacking not only seriousness but certainly in even a modicum of “courage and honesty.” The Arab and Palestinian responses, emphatically rejected Netanyahu’s “generous offer” – and were immediately characterized by Israeli spokesmen as refusing to talk about peace.

A little less expected were the responses of some people in the Israeli peace camp who saw in the speech a window, even if only a small one, to a better future.

But much more important was the response of the main addressee of Netanyahu’s speech: President Barack Obama. True, he did not bother to listen to the speech, preferring to play golf instead. But his first response, at least according to media reports, was that Netanyahu’s speech was “a step in the right direction.”

Obama has been described by both the Israeli and Palestinian media as taking a tough line with Netanyahu. After all, wasn’t it Obama who himself said “that he would pursue peace aggressively?” And an Israeli commentator wrote that Netanyahu in his speech “had to loosen the American noose.” [Yossi Verter, Haaretz, 15 June 2009, “Netanyahu speech solely for Obama’s ears” ]

Perhaps we might ask if, in fact, Netanyahu’s speech created a sharp conflict between Israel and the United States. According to Palestinian leader Saeb Erakat, the speech “was a slap in the face to Obama” although his initial reaction didn’t seem to presage any conflict. But that raises several questions, such as: do Netanyahu and his entourage know something about Israel’s relationship with the United States that is concealed from the public?

Perhaps America’s constant emphasis on the fact that the U.S.-Israel relationship is “unshakable” and the United States will “ensure Israel’s security” has greater importance than we have imagined? Could it be that we have misinterpreted Obama’s Cairo speech, as a result of which the left has unjustified illusions and the extreme right exaggerated fears?

Was the purpose of the speech to appease those whom the Americans refer to as “the moderate Arab states,” and to provide them with ammunition against extremist Arabs through the use of strong language towards Israel? Perhaps the objective of the speech was not, after all, to bring peace closer and to end the occupation.

Take, for example, Obama’s forceful statement that “it is time for these settlements to stop.” That sentence was universally understood as a reversal of U/S. policy towards Israel. But a second and more focussed look raises the question of why Obama chose to say that the settlements should “stop” and not that they should “be dismantled” or “removed.” This appears to be somewhat less than a demand that the occupation itself come to an end. It could be read instead as a kind of tacit acceptance of the occupation on condition that the settlements be limited in their growth, an implied recognition of the so-called “settlement blocs” slated for annexation in every Israeli “peace plan.” As we learn from Washington, even Netanyahu’s emphatic rejection of the demand to stop the settlements is already under “discussion.”

In fact there is more than a little hypocrisy and pretence in the emphatic demand that Israel stop the settlements. One gets the impression from Obama’s speech that Israel alone is responsible for the establishment of settlements. But is it conceivable that the president of the United States does not know full well that no Israeli government could have erected even one settlement without the agreement of the United States, either explicit or implied.

If Obama had meant to be straightforward on the subject, he would have said: “We will immediately cease our support for the building of the settlements. We, who permitted that construction, in partnership with the Israelis, have violated international law by doing so. We, who have evaded all discussion of the matter, provided cover for Israel by vetoing any condemnation of its acts at the United Nations Security Council.”

Had Obama expressed himself like that, he would have been seen to be putting his cards on the table. But he chose, instead, to strike the pose of a prophet, preaching righteousness. He did this in other parts of his speech as well, in which American political motivations were well concealed.

Thus, for example, he said that the United States would not impose peace on the two sides, but that they themselves had to do that. Obama surely knows that Israel’s policy, which Netanyahu emphasized very clearly in his speech, is insistence on “direct negotiations” with the Palestinians. In this way Israel can continue to subjugate the Palestinians forever?

In this context it is also important to take note that at no point in his speech did Obama propose a plan for peace or for ending the occupation. He did not mention the 1967 borders, the refugee problem, Jerusalem as the capital of the two peoples, or Palestinian unity. As a result he has made it easier for Netanyahu to deal with those issues as he wants.

Particularly appalling was the section in which Obama talked about the violence that the Palestinians (the Palestinians, mind you, not the Israelis!) must stop. And this was only a few months after Operation “Cast Lead” in Gaza, which took place after his election to the presidency, and about which he maintained a stony silence.

In a more general framework, it is somewhat strange when talking about violence to hear this admonition coming from a man who presides over the world’s largest military force, a force with 700 military bases spread all over the world. Obama has already increased the American military budget, postponed the withdrawal from Iraq and escalated involvement in Afghanistan. And one is not even talking about the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq which daily adds to the tally of the dead and wounded (estimated to range from half a million to a million and a half). Apparently Obama sees only the mote in the Palestinians’ eye.

Obama’s speech reflects the weakening of America’s position in the world, especially among the Arab and Muslim states. Gone are the days when gunships were dispatched to deal with outbursts of resistance to America. Even extensive invasions like those of Iraq and Afghanistan have become harder to execute. It has also become harder to undertake covert actions like the political assassinations and internal coups that were implemented against Allende in Chile, Castro in Cuba and Mossadegh in Iran.

The weakening of the United States is a result both of the loosening of its grip on the world economy and on the change in power relations in the world such as the strengthening of China and new assertiveness of Russia. The Muslim nationalist movement must be counted among the factors that are weakening American hegemony. The Arab and Muslim nationalist movements are among the biggest enemies of American imperial hegemony. Even though those movements were weakened to a great extent when they went from being secular-nationalist to being religious-nationalist, they continue to be a large, hostile force against the United States.

The United States is not afraid of the Iranian nuclear bomb. It is afraid, rather, of Iran’s influence over the various anti-American nationalist movements. Obama knows that the so-called moderate Arab governments do not enjoy the support of their peoples, and that they are vulnerable to that influence.

The experts in the White House understand that they must distance themselves from the Bush legacy. They understand that it is necessary to change – if not the policies then at least the style. They understand that it is necessary to implement certain changes, even at the expense of Israel. Obama is prepared to make certain cosmetic changes. But he would not dream of fundamentally changing the “unshakeable” relationship. In my estimation, the most that he will do is dismantle some settlement outposts and stop the spread of the settlements to some extent. Packaged in his admirable rhetoric, this bone will be thrown to the “moderate” Arab states. It will relieve the pressure that the Arab nationalist movements are applying on them.

Obama may be compared to Churchill, who declared that he did not rise to power in order to liquidate the British Empire. Obama has no intention of liquidating the American empire. He intends to conserve it. As such, he remains at the forefront of American imperialism.

The two speeches, Obama’s and Netanyahu’s, were a show of “as if.” They both know who really decides. Obama could have dispensed with the speech and just announced to the Israeli government that if Israel does not withdraw from all the territories he would take certain measures. But Obama does not intend to do that, because Israel plays an important role in the U.S.A.’s strategy for the Middle East. The margin for bargaining between the two is very small. So far it looks as if Netanyahu – perhaps even more than his adversaries – is well aware of its dimensions.

And to those among us who pinned their hopes for peace on Obama and the United States I say with sorrow: the United States is not the solution: it is the problem.

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