Obama on Israel

Uri Avnery

After a merciless struggle, Barack Obama has defeated Hillary Clinton. And what was the first thing Obama did after his astounding victory? He made a speech at the Aipac conference that broke all records for obsequiousness to the Israel lobby. That is shocking enough. Even more shocking is the fact that nobody was shocked.

It was a triumphalist conference. Even this powerful organisation, the most powerful group in the US Israel lobby, had never seen anything like it. Seven thousand Jewish functionaries from all over the United States came together to accept the obeisance of the entire Washington elite. The three presidential hopefuls (Hillary went too) made speeches, trying to outdo each other in flattery. Three hundred senators and members of Congress crowded the hallways. Everybody who wanted to be elected or re-elected to any office came to see and be seen. All over the world events were closely followed: the Arab media reported on them extensively; al-Jazeera devoted an hour to discussing the conference. The conclusions of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt were confirmed. On the eve of Mearsheimer and Walt’s visit to Israel the Israel lobby stood at the centre of political life in the US and the world at large.

Why do candidates for the American presidency believe that the support of the Israel lobby is essential to their election? Jewish votes are important, of course, especially in certain swing states. But African-Americans have more votes, and so do Hispanics. Obama has attracted millions of new young voters. The Arab-Muslim community in the US is also numerically significant. Some say that Jewish money speaks, that the Jews are rich. Perhaps they donate more money for political causes. But all this has an anti-semitic ring. After all, other lobbies, especially multinational corporations, gave considerable sums of money to Obama (as well as to his opponents). And Obama himself has proudly announced that hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens sent him small donations, which have amounted to tens of millions of dollars. True, the Israel lobby can almost always block the election of a senator or a member of Congress who does not dance – fervently – to the Israeli tune. In some exemplary cases the lobby has defeated popular politicians by lending its political and financial clout to the election campaign of a practically unknown rival. But in a presidential race?

Obama’s fawning to the Israel lobby stands out more than that of the other candidates because his dizzying success in the primaries was due to his promise to bring about change, not to compromise his principles. The main thing that distinguishes Obama from Hillary Clinton and John McCain is that he was an uncompromising opponent of the war in Iraq from the first. That was courageous. That was unpopular. That was in total opposition to the Israel lobby, all of whose branches were pushing George Bush to start the war. But now Obama comes to Aipac and goes out of his way to justify a policy that runs completely against his own ideals.

OK, he promised to safeguard Israel’s security at any cost. That is usual. OK, he made dark threats against Iran, even though he also promised to meet their leaders and settle problems peacefully. OK, he promised to bring back Israel’s three captured soldiers (believing, mistakenly, that all of them are held by Hizbullah – an error that shows how sketchy his knowledge of Israeli affairs is). But it was what he said about Jerusalem that was scandalous.

No Palestinian, no Arab, no Muslim will make peace with Israel if the Haram-al-Sharif compound (also known as the Temple Mount), one of the three holiest places of Islam and the chief symbol of Palestinian nationalism, is not transferred to Palestinian sovereignty. That is one of the core issues of the conflict. The Camp David conference of 2000 collapsed on this matter, even though Ehud Barak was willing to divide Jerusalem in some manner. Along comes Obama and retrieves from the junkyard the worn-out slogan ‘Undivided Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel for all Eternity’. Since Camp David, every Israeli government has understood that this mantra is an insurmountable obstacle to any peace process. It has disappeared – quietly, almost unobserved – from the arsenal of official slogans. Only the Israeli and American-Jewish right stick to it, and for the same reason: to smother any chance of a peace that would necessitate the dismantling of the settlements.

In previous US presidential races, the candidates thought it was enough to promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. No one ever did anything about this promise after they were elected. Obama’s statement that Jerusalem must remain undivided went much further. Quite possibly, he was telling himself: OK, I must say this in order to get elected. But even so the fact cannot be ignored: the fear of Aipac is so great that even this candidate does not dare to stand up to them, but follows the worst old-style Washington routine. He has also harmed his image in the Muslim world and mortgaged his future if and when he is elected president.

What has caused the rapid ascent to power of the American Jewish establishment? The more I think about this phenomenon, the stronger my conviction becomes that what really matters is the similarity between the American enterprise and the Zionist one. The Mayflower passengers, much like the Zionists of the first and second aliya (immigration wave), fled from Europe, carrying with them a messianic vision, whether religious or utopian. (The early Zionists were mostly atheists, but religious traditions had a powerful influence on them.) The founders of American society were pilgrims, the Zionist immigrants called themselves olim – short for olim beregel, or ‘pilgrims’. Both sailed to a ‘promised land’, believing themselves to be God’s chosen people. Both suffered a great deal in their new country. Both saw themselves as ‘pioneers’ who would make the wilderness bloom, a ‘people without land in a land without people’. Both completely ignored the rights of indigenous people, considering them savages. Both saw the resistance of the local peoples as evidence of their innate murderous character, and felt that this justified even the worst atrocities. Both expelled the natives and took possession of their land, settling on every hill and under every tree, with one hand on the plough and the other on the Bible. True, Israel hasn’t committed anything approaching the genocide performed against the Native Americans, nor anything like slavery. But in the unconscious mind of both nations feelings of suppressed guilt make themselves evident in the denial of past misdeeds, in aggressiveness and the worship of power.

Why does a man like Obama, the son of an African father, identify so completely with the actions of generations of American whites? It shows again the power of a myth to become rooted in the consciousness of a person, so that he identifies with the imagined national narrative. To this can be added the unconscious urge to belong to the victors. I don’t accept the speculation: ‘Well, he must talk like this in order to get elected. Once in the White House, he will be himself again.’ I’m not so sure. It may well turn out that these things have a surprisingly strong grip on his mental world.