In perhaps one respect, U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent speech at Cairo lived up to its advance billing as a historic overture to the Islamic world. Hidden within its characteristic eloquence, were frequent admissions of error by the U.S., hitherto the unquestionable bearer of the mantle of righteousness. Obama fortunately is grounded in reality, rather than theological faith. That crucial difference already has made for some changes in the U.S. approach to the question of Palestine.
Beyond bogus analogies with the 1930s and dire imprecations about the futility of “appeasement”, what the Zionists and the U.S. right-wing found least acceptable about Obama’s speech was probably its use of the term “Palestine” at no fewer than two junctures. U.S. presidents in the past have in occasional moods of compassion, acknowledged the problem of “refugees”, though of no particular cultural or political stripe. They have in more recent times, grudgingly accepted that a people known as the “Palestinians” exist, with the undeniable right to constitute themselves into a state. Seldom has a U.S. president mentioned “Palestine” as a historical, a cultural and a putative political entity. And Obama’s reference to this identity was explicit: “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's”.
But where would this identity find the territorial space to overcome years of denial, where could it possibly establish itself and grow, when historic Palestine is now claimed by another people as its god-given right? The historian and political commentator Tony Judt describes Zionism today as “an uncompromising ethno-religious real estate pact with a partisan God, a pact that justifies any and all actions against real or imagined threats, critics, and enemies”. And indeed, to enforce this real estate pact, the partisan God has to lean on the support – financial, military and moral – of a superpower blinded by prejudice.
It was this prejudice that was expressed by Obama’s predecessor in a speech to the Israeli Knesset last May, marking the 60-year anniversary of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the creation of the Jewish state. “Israel's population may be just over 7 million”, said George Bush: “But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong, because America stands with you”. That was where all reason ceased: the seemingly unbreakable identification of Palestinians with terrorism.
The basic principles of the peace in Palestine were laid out in the “roadmap” to a permanent two-state solution, agreed between all major stakeholders in April 2003. Though a markedly asymmetric document, which expects the Palestinians to live up to virtually impossible criteria, Israel has baulked at accepting it, since it clearly requires the dismantling of all settlements built in occupied territories since March 2001 and the freezing of all further growth, including what is euphemistically referred to as “natural growth”.
Expectedly, within a year of the roadmap being agreed, it was amended through an “exchange of letters” between Bush and the then Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. The headline news about this round of correspondence between the two soulmates in the struggle against “terrorism” was the Israeli plan to supposedly disengage from Gaza. But its true purpose was to secure the U.S.-Israeli compact on two points: that Palestinians were yet to establish their credentials as a partner for peace and that West Bank territory seized in the 1967 war of aggression would be sliced and carved up by Israel in a manner of its choosing.
In an unguarded moment following this exchange of letters, Sharon’s top aide, Dov Weissglass, spelt out what the purpose of the disengagement from Gaza was: to put the peace process in “formaldehyde” and take the prospect of a Palestinian state permanently off the bargaining table.
With Obama now stating categorically, though with seeming design, that the U.S. “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”, a question naturally arises about his attitude towards the ones that already exist as “facts on the ground”. Yet even with this element of ambiguity introduced with obvious regard for Israeli sensitivities, the arch-Zionist administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has brusquely dismissed the U.S. posture. Indeed, Netanyahu’s principal focus, ever since the Obama presidency began, has been to change the subject and solicit U.S. interest in a military strike to decapitate Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons programme.
Israel is counting on the endorsement for its plans against the Islamic Republic, of its secret allies in the Arab world – the conservative oil sheikhdoms, Jordan and the newly-elected Lebanese ruling coalition – which are all deeply worried about the growing strategic clout of Iran. Yet the U.S. is uneasily aware that its own recent misadventures have contributed to this outcome, and that a military engagement with Iran would recoil on it very badly, perhaps dooming it to certain failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, in the moral sense, it would be yet another vivid demonstration of U.S. double-standards and contempt for the Arab and Islamic world, that the fading superpower can ill afford.
In his infamous interview explicating what the hidden purpose of the 2004 Bush-Sharon exchange of letters was, Dov Weissglass remarked that the endorsement of the sole superpower was all Israel needed to go its own way in unilaterally determining future frontiers in Palestine. The point was reaffirmed by Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister of Israel during Bush’s visit of May 2008: what the superpower says, goes. Somehow, that arrogant presumption has failed to survive the global tide of revulsion that Israel’s successive assaults on the Palestinians have engendered. Global public opinion though could be denied and fobbed off, but not the shockwaves of the global financial meltdown, which have crippled and perhaps, permanently incapacitated the sole superpower.
Yet, the more things change, the more they remain the same. When Denis Mitchell, the U.S. President’s special envoy for Palestine, visited Israel shortly after Obama’s Cairo speech, he was at pains to emphasise that despite all the seeming changes in the idiom, the U.S. remained bound by the Bush-Sharon exchange of letters. Evidence, if any were needed, that despite the bad odour that surrounds them, the Israel lobby and the neo-conservatives who have contrived a geostrategic mess of unprecedented proportions, still retain a degree of influence within the U.S.