Abandoning reason to demonise Obama
Antony Lerman, Guardian 12 August 2009
Does Barack Obama represent the best hope for a just and final settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict or will his Middle East policy lead directly to the destruction of Israel?
I would guess that most Palestinians faced with this question would regard it as ridiculous. Notwithstanding the president’s Cairo speech and his insistence on a total freeze on the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, they would be deeply sceptical about the US president’s ability to make any fundamental changes in US Middle East policy. Even were he to make such an adjustment, they would have grave doubts about whether it would seriously take on board Palestinian concerns. And they would be incredulous that anyone could argue that he is doing anything that could be interpreted as against Israel’s interests. Once again, they would say, the Palestinians are being written out of the script.
But to many American Jews, as well as to many Israeli Jews and to some Jews in the UK, the question would seem to reflect a very real and stark choice. While some who are taking sides on the issue are presenting their arguments in a reasonable manner, for others the issue is positively Manichean in its consequences, giving licence to quite staggering levels of rhetorical bitterness, vilification and hyperbole in an area where debate is already dangerously polarised.
The reasons given for seeing Obama’s presidency as an unprecedented opportunity seem plausible. London-based Middle East analyst Tony Klug recently argued that despite “reason enough for deep despondency”, “for one reason alone, there is a perceptible if cautious optimism in the air: the election of an inspirational United States president, Barack Obama, who (amid many other policy challenges) is committed to making a serious effort to resolve the conflict.” Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East task force at the New America Foundation in Washington, wrote in an online Economist debate: “It would be curmudgeonly not to acknowledge the important points of departure in Mr Obama’s approach and the promise his presidency holds out for a Middle East policy sufficiently evenhanded to deliver real breakthroughs.”
But David Frum, President George Bush’s former speech writer, responded to Daniel Levy with an argument aimed at seeking out the jugular: “I can remember not so long ago when even-handedness was diplomatic code for anti-Israel animus. Those now look like the good old days. The Obama administration has tilted so far against Israel that even-handedness looks like up from down here.” No matter that Levy was an adviser to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and lead Israeli drafter of the 2003 Geneva Initiative, Frum makes Levy’s praise of Obama’s “evenhandedness” look like a form of conniving in the destruction of Israel.
All this is relatively sedate, as you might expect in an Economist-moderated debate. In the world of major American Jewish organisations and pro-Israel lobby groups, according to Ha’aretz, “feuding … is taking place behind closed doors and could be reaching its worst point in recent memory.” This surfaced a few days ago when the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) placed a full-page ad in the New York Times which said: “The problem isn’t settlements, it’s Arab rejection.” The head of ADL, Abe Foxman, told Ha’aretz: “first of all [the Obama administration has] to stop the overkill. Every opportunity that they have to bash Israel they do.” But Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of the liberal, “pro-peace, pro-Israel” advocacy group J Street, issued an open letter to Foxman accusing him of “pointing fingers” and arguing that “the best route forward is not for each side to call on the other to move first, but to get all sides to the table with strong Jewish leadership to figure out how we move together”.
These differences ride on a sub-stratum of persistent, yet completely unfounded, “accusations” that Barack Obama is antisemitic, a terrorist and a Muslim (a “crime”, it would seem, in some people’s eyes). Websites and blogs like this one continue to spread these lies. They link to articles damning Obama by “respectable” columnists like Charles Krauthammer and Caroline Glick and self-styled academics like Bat Yeor, thereby seeking to confer legitimacy on the wildest anti-Obama conspiracy theories.
And in a bizarre exchange between Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips and the prolific Israel-defender and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz on FrontPage Magazine, Phillips emerges as a principal cheerleader for those who see Obama as the devil incarnate as far as Israel and “truth” are concerned. These two very high-profile, arch-propagandists for Israel virtually tear the skin from each other’s bones over Obama. While Dershowitz does not object to the pressure the president is putting on Israel, and he and Phillips agree that the main barrier to peace is the Palestinians’ refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, Phillips believes Dershowitz spectacularly fails “to acknowledge the evidence of the hostility Obama is displaying towards Israel”.
Phillips says that in his Cairo speech Obama effectively denied “that the Jewish people are in Israel as of right” and makes the scurrilous claim that he “subtly suggested an equivalence between the Nazi extermination camps and the Palestinian ‘refugee’ camps”. Phillips tells Dershowitz that she is “upholding truth against lies, freedom against tyranny and justice against the moral inversion which regards third-world aggressors as victims and their victims as aggressors – precisely the thinking demonstrated by Obama”, someone “who would turn Israelis in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem into sitting ducks for Palestinian rockets and bombs sited just down the road.” To make this possible, “Obama has skilfully constructed an administration composed of Israel-bashers, appeasement–minded ‘new realists’ and peace-process zealots – several of them Jews – all converging on precisely the same agenda to destroy Israel’s security.” It’s but a short step from this to accusations that Obama is antisemitic.
There is, of course, no guarantee that Obama’s Middle East policy will succeed where others have failed. And Palestinian scepticism is well-founded, as Daniel Levy concedes: “Were Spock to land here and conduct an inventory of Mr Obama’s first six months, the only logical Vulcan conclusion would be that the aggregate of policies weighs in Israel’s favour.” But the wilder shores of Jewish and Israeli criticism of Obama have nothing in common with these reasoned doubts. They speak of a continuing inability to seize the political moment – a moment, Klug convincingly argues, when many of the building blocks for a two-state resolution of the conflict are in place. A bunker-mentality seems to prevail across much of the Jewish world – ideal circumstances for demonising Obama. And when Prime Minister Netanyahu, who heads the most rightwing government in Israel’s history, leads the way by calling Obama’s senior aides Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod “self-hating Jews“, should we be surprised?