June 7, 2008
Barack Obama’s Limited ‘Change’
7 June 2008
It is probably no great revelation that most Arabs have been backing Barack Obama in the race to the White House. So it was profoundly disappointing that his first statement on foreign affairs since becoming the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate should be a blast of unwavering support for Israel. Such a pledge cannot bring peace to the Middle East. It also raises questions about his campaign promise of “change.”
His insistence that any deal between Palestinians and Israelis must keep Israel as a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its undivided capital together with his promise to use force, if necessary, to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is hardly a basis for change. It is a guarantee for keeping things as they are. There can be no peace if all Jerusalem remains in Israeli hands. Without East Jerusalem as the new state’s capital, no Palestinian, no matter how moderate, is going to sign a peace deal. It was illegally seized in 1967 and the whole world, other than the US Congress which passed a law in 1995 describing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, agrees that it does not belong to the Israelis; despite the 1995 law, even the Bush administration goes along with that and has refused to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv.
The pledge sounded like a hawk speaking, not a dove. This was the language of the past, the language that has prevented peace from happening — and it must have been music to the ears of the Israeli hard-liners.
Of course, everyone knows why he said it. The race with John McCain is going to be tough and he wants to keep every lobby on his side, not least the Israeli lobby. Which was why, back in January when most governments were condemning Israel for the Gaza blockade, he was saying he understood why Israel was “forced” to impose the blockade and demanding that the UN Security Council condemn rocket attacks from the territory and that, if it refused, it should not be saying anything about Israel at all.
But the Israeli lobby is already not so much on the side of his campaign as on board. Many of its key figures are Democrats. So he could have said nothing.
Obama has now amended his thoughts. In the face of Palestinian condemnation, he says that the status of East Jerusalem is a matter for them and the Israelis to negotiate. We must view this positively. No US leader in half-a-century has so pointedly regretted any previous pro-Israeli statement. Maybe it is a sign of things to come.
On the other hand, his change of heart about East Jerusalem, welcome though it is, brings him exactly where the Bush administration is. It too says that it is for the Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate. So other than on Iraq, where he wants withdrawal, and on Syria, where he supports Israel’s decision to negotiate with it, there is no difference — and the latter can hardly be regarded as a major divergence.
Change, when it comes to the core Middle East issue, seems to be somewhat limited.