In an interview with Press TV on January 24 , Noam Chomsky gave voice to the cynicism of the hardcore left, predicting that the Obama administration would show little substantive difference with past American governments in its dealings with Israel.
"The US is not going to join the world in seeking to implement a diplomatic settlement," Chomsky told his Iranian interlocutor. "and if that is the case, (George) Mitchell’s mission is vacuous."
In theory, one can debate all sorts of things. However, the proof is in the actions oft he new president. Already we are seeing signs that Chomsky’s pessimism is misplaced. In fact, early indications show a distinct change in American policy, with the possibility of more to come.
One small examplewas Obama’s reversal of the Bush administration’sdecision to boycott the planning of the so-called Durban2 conference. This gathering, which will be held in Geneva in April, is a follow up to the much criticized first World Conference Against Racism that took place in 2001 in Durban, SouthAfrica.
That conference was largely diverted by pro-Palestinian groups and governments pushing anextremist agenda. The US and Israel both walked out. Some of those same NGOs and governmental delegations are pushing a similar agenda this time. But there are also strong forces working to ensure that this WCAR addresses broader issues of racism, and avoids the descenti nto anti-Semitism that characterized the first conference.
Israel has already announced its boycott, as has Canada. The United States has now decided, however, that the best way to prevent the conference from descending into an anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic frenzy is to engage in the event’s planning. If that fails, the Americans can always decide not to participate, as the U.S. and Israeli delegations did in 2001.
Barack Obama should be applauded for taking this course of action. He is working to prevent another demonstration of anti-Jewish racism, while demonstrating that failed strategies for combating it are being abandoned. Sadly, the Israeli government, and a number of prominent U.S. Jewish leaders would rather continue to use claims of anti-Semitism as a political hammer than try to eradicate the phenomenon.
The Durban 2 decision is nothing in comparison to the stance that is emerging regarding settlement expansion in the West Bank. Ha’aretz reported on February 15 that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Mideast Envoy George Mitchell are expected to take a firm stance with Israel on settlement expansion, including threatening to reduce the remaining $1.3 billion in loan guarantees the US has promised to Israel by the amount spent on settlement expansion.
This expectation was bolstered by statements in the House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. On February 12, opening a hearing on the Gaza War, the chairman of the subcommittee, Gary Ackerman, one of the House’s key pro-Israel leaders, issued a scathing indictment of Israel’s settlement enterprise. Coming from a source like Ackerman, blame for the stalled peace process being laid at the doorstep of settlements alongside (though not, Ackerman was quick to point out, on an equal footing with) Palestinian violence was surprising, to say the least.
Ackerman’s bold statement indicates that the direction Obama intends to head in is being mapped out not only with his own team of advisors, but with key pro-Israel figures in Congress. Unlike Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush, whose maverick policy making endeavors eschewed such collaboration, Obama is crafting an approach that he hopes will be executed without opposition from legislators and AIPAC-allied forces.
Indeed, at that very hearing (which I attended) we saw how things may split amongst Israel’s supporters in Congress. While Shelly Berkley and ranking Republican Dan Burton sang the same old tune, other notable figures like Robert Wexler appeared very much in line with Ackerman, as did some of the House’s newer lawmakers, such asrepresentatives Gerald Connolly and Michael McMahon. This indicates that the Obama team has marshaled reasonable Democrats behind it, and is ready to brave the attacks of the old guard.
It is no coincidence that Israel has suddenly shown a willingness to discuss ways to openGaza’s border crossings as part of a long-term truce and reconstruction arrangement. The idea was never hinted at during the Bush administration’s tenure, right through its very last day. Suddenly, under Obama, it has become a cornerstone of every proposed arrangement.
In my discussions with officials at the State Department, it has been very clear that, while they always felt this was a necessary condition, Israel’s responsiveness to the idea changed dramatically once they knew the President agreed with that direction.
Obama’s team has demonstrated its interest in building stability in Gaza. It has also been absolutely clear (as was Ackerman) that anything that legitimized Hamas was a red line it was not willing to cross. But instead of leaving the people of Gaza to starve, they have insisted on exploring alternatives that would allow the territory’s civilian population to pursue their businesses and access needed services while bypassing its Islamist government
This strategy might well fail. The hope is to find a way to re-establish the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. Hamas is both determined and well-positioned enough to prevent that. The Obama administration will not legitimize Hamas, and sees that as too high a price to pay to open up access to the devastated territory.
Hamas stands accused of very serious breaches of Gazans’ trust. It appears to have wantonly deployed its forces in civilian areas during the fighting with Israel (to a greater degree than the considerable extent that the physical terrain and crowded conditions of Gaza made inevitable), and it has carried out beatings and executions of political enemies during and after the war. Hamas’ well-documented attempts to steal aid from UNRWA nearly cut off the one lifeline for humanitarian assistance that the people of Gaza have left.
Hamas’ position is not strong, and recent polls indicate that, while its profile remains high in the Arab world at large, in Gaza, support is at a low point. There may indeed be a way to administer the crossings without benefiting the Palestinian organization.
However, even if there is not, the fact that the US has chosen to vigorously pursue this approach is further evidence of real change from the Obama administration. Its stated eagerness to open a dialogue with Syria, and its slow pace in appointing an envoy to Iran further underline the depth of this change.
The Blank Cheque Has Bounced
Despite this change in policy direction, it is important to recognize that Israel isstill the American government’s most valued ally in the Middle East. It is seen by the Obama administration as the closest friend the US has in the region, and it will remain that way on the President’s final day in office.
What has taken hold in Washington is the clarity that only a party outside of a conflict can have. It is the view of what is truly in the best interest of both Israel and America. It is an understanding that giving Israel a blank cheque to decide its own course is unwise, especially when that course is subject to the volatile emotions of a populace in long-term conflict and a political system that is fractured and broken.
Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel and founder ofthe pro-Israel think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, stated after Obama’s electoral victory that the "era of the blank cheque is over." This change is not due to decreased sympathy for Israel. On the contrary, it is precisely because of such sentiments, combined with a sober analysis of Israeli needs, that the Obama administration is embarking on this course. And it’s also why it may very well succeed.
The rightward shift in Israel is a major obstacle. But Israel — even Benjamin Netanyahu– has already demonstrated that it understands that this is a new America it’s dealing with. The question of how effective this strategy will be will come down to how well the Obama administration can deal with the backlash from so-called "pro-Israel" forces, who do not understand how much harm they are doing to the Jewish state, with their focus on protecting the settlements and defending other Israeli policy excesses.
Part of that equation will be measured by Obama’s willingness to stay the course. But part will also come from the efforts of pro-Israel, pro-peace groups whose task it will be to counter two opposing forces. One is the supporters of the status quo, such as AIPAC, and more radical US organizations, such as the Zionist Organization of America. The other is the radical left who will follow Chomsky’s lead and insist that until the US adopts an unrealistic and ineffective posture of withdrawing its support (particularly military aid) for Israel, nothing will change.
Moderate US peace organizations must demonstrate that a clear American stance that supports Israel’s ability to defend itself, insists on an end to the settlement enterprise, and that gives Palestinians a real chance to build their society is a politically viable and effective position. Though liberal activists and pundits alike have been making this point for years, this is the first time since the beginning of the Oslo era where there has been such a serious chance to actually follow through. If they are effective, Obama’s diplomacy stands a serious chance of succeeding.