There were no standing ovations when U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the annual conclave of the American-Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) in Washington DC. The atmosphere was formal and parts of his speech were met with what was described as “stony silence”. Shortly afterwards, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu rounded off a visit to the U.S. that was, behind the pretence of undying mutual love, all frayed tempers and defiance. His final act, an address to the U.S. Congress, had the more assiduous record keepers counting twenty-nine standing ovations. There was a signal there: he had scored one more than Obama did during his last State of the Union address before the same legislative body.
As the Israeli Prime Minister headed home, the American Zionist magazine -- Commentary -- smugly certified him the winner in the head-on clash with Obama. Using the simple barometer of the volume of applause won, the magazine with a record of loyal service to Zionism, offered the confident prognosis that the “Jewish state enjoys overwhelming and bipartisan support in this country”.
An “ambush” is how Obama’s major speech, delivered just ahead of Netanyahu’s visit, was described in the Zionist press. Netanyahu had been out-manoeuvred and out-flanked when Ariel Sharon, his bitter rival for Prime Ministership and the title of Zionist champion, had vacated the Israeli occupation of the Gaza strip in 2005. Prior to this, Sharon had exchanged letters with George W. Bush, then U.S. President, to make it official policy that Israel could -– in exchange for the Gaza withdrawal -- unilaterally define its borders with a putative Palestinian state in the West Bank.
The U.S. statement of policy then was vague and hesitant, but regarded as a sufficient endorsement of Zionist territorial annexation. This unilateral imposition of a “final status” settlement on Palestine, though, was thwarted by three implacable realities. Iraq erupted in full-fledged civil war in 2005, making nonsense of the U.S. venture to mould the Arab world in a manner of its choosing through military means. The Israeli gambit in abandoning Gaza, always very difficult terrain, in exchange for a free hand in defining facts on the ground in the West Bank, collapsed when its principal author, Sharon, was rendered hors de combat by a stroke in January 2006. And when elections were held in the Palestinian territories soon afterwards, the collaborationist Fatah was banished and the uncompromising Islamic grouping, Hamas, voted to power.
The Bush-Sharon stratagem went into a zone of uncertainty and was only revived when the discredited U.S. President made a long delayed visit to Israel towards the end of his term. A semblance of peace prevailed in Iraq and Sharon’s breakaway faction from the Likud was still in power. Israel had meanwhile earned global odium with an assault on Lebanon that clearly breached all norms of warfare and brought it little military advantage. Bush was greeted with great aplomb by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, who lauded him as the “superpower president”, whose writ would run through all foreseeable history. Bush’s letter to Sharon assuring him that the West Bank was Israel’s for the taking, was effectively global law.
Obama assumed the U.S. presidency just days after Israel had yet again chosen to test the world’s tolerance for war crimes, with a brutal and barbaric assault on the Gaza. He suffered the public humiliation of his Vice-President, Joseph Biden, when Israel chose the occasion of an official visit to announce new construction projects in occupied territory. Obama had to make his peace with the Zionist lobby in the U.S., while at the same time fulfilling a vow that the Iraq misadventure would end under his watch. The formula he offered, was that Israel should allow a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967, subject to necessary land swaps and a fair deal for the people made refugees several times over since the ethnic cleansing of 1948.
There was nothing Obama said that went against the spirit of the agreed statement issued after a meeting between Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in November 2010. Netanyahu was furious all the same, rejecting any possible return to the 1967 lines, simply because those were “indefensible” borders for Israel.
At an early moment in Netanyahu’s recent address to the U.S. Congress, a voluble protester was herded out of the visitors’ balcony after causing a momentary stir. Netanyahu recovered from the passing discomfiture to affirm that the atmosphere of freedom he saw in the congressional hall was indeed a boon to all humanity – a far cry from the “fake parliaments” of Tehran and Tripoli.
Israel’s Prime Minister, who leads a parliament that has been described by human rights groups as the most racist in the country’s history, repeatedly invoked the trope of shared values, that made an alliance between Israel and the U.S. an indispensable force for positive change in one of the world’s most benighted neighbourhoods.
Even as Netanyahu spoke, though, evolving realities in the Arab world were making nonsense of his self-serving propaganda. On May 10, observances of the nakba -– or day of dispossession -- by Palestinians in Syria led to a storming of the border fence maintained by Israel in the occupied Golan Heights. Several were killed in the Israeli armed action that followed, though the message imparted by the brutal Syrian regime, then facing a mass uprising for democracy, was not lost. Israel’s best interests lie in crushing the movements for democratic change in the Arab world, except when a peripheral country such as Libya is involved. Arab dictatorships are Israel’s best security guarantee. When the Arab world wakes up to democracy – as Palestine showed in 2006 and Egypt is now demonstrating – Israel would have reason to fear for its continuing existence as nation structured on racist principles, that has nonetheless managed to retain its democratic veneer.
June 2, 2011