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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Blog Post » Great speech, but what about Israel-Palestine?

I am one of those who believe that President Barack Obama actually deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. He deserved it because, in the months since assuming the presidency, he restored the United States from a nation "gone rogue" into the one it has been throughout its history. That is, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, a nation with "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind."

Under the previous administration of Bush, Cheney, and the Neocons, the United States had operated with no respect for international organizations or international opinion. We did what we wanted to do, when we wanted to do it.

Barack Obama ended that ugly epoch. And for that he deserves the Nobel and the gratitude of humanity.

This is not to say that Obama has ended America's over-reliance on war, rather than on diplomacy, as the means to confront our enemies. No matter whether one supports or opposes the Afghanistan surge, it is still an escalation of war. We remain in Iraq. Americans are still being killed and are killing in wars that many consider unnecessary.

But there is simply no comparison between an administration that approaches war with trepidation and exhaustive consideration and the Neocon administration which sent Americans off to fight with glee. (Remember Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle pushing war with Iraq - which they knew had nothing to do with 9/11 - as early as 9/12?).

Obama's speech in Oslo was brilliant. I am not surprised that he wrote it himself. He had to somehow accept an award, which most Americans believe was given prematurely, without seeming, in any way, arrogant or even proud to receive it. He also had to accept the Nobel Peace Prize weeks after escalating a war.

He is the only person in his administration capable of writing a speech that would thread that needle. Obama again demonstrates that his is that very rare administration in which the President is the most intelligent and talented player.

In fact, the coming of Obama might cause President John F. Kennedy, if he were here, to amend the toast he offered when he hosted a dinner for Nobel laureates back in 1962.

He said, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House - with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

And yet, I have one significant problem with Obama's speech. It contained one gaping element of hypocrisy. It concerns Israelis and Palestinians.

In his speech, the President essentially called for peace and justice while describing situations in which war is both unavoidable and justified. He also described situations in which, to avoid war, the international community must "stand together as one" to rectify egregious injustice.

For instance, he said this: "I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to actually change behavior -- for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure -- and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one."

But he does not apply that standard to Israel and its illegal occupation of the territories it won in the 1967 war. Not only is Israel not held accountable, but the Obama administration actually blocks efforts to hold it accountable (i.e., the Goldstone report on war crimes in Gaza). The Obama administration even backed away from its demand that settlement activity stop. Additionally, the world community knows that the United Nations is helpless in dealing with Israel because the United States uses its veto on Israel's behalf whenever Israel asks it to.

So where's the accountability?

Obama said the following, describing a just war. "War is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence."

And yet the Obama administration defended the Gaza war which, to many, epitomized the disproportionate use of force. The casualty figures alone tell the story - 1400 Palestinian dead (320 of them children) compared to 13 Israelis, four killed by friendly fire. As for the provocation, while it is true that no country would allow incessant rocket fire on a civilian area, it is also true that responding to clumsy inaccurate rockets with the full force of the Israeli army was reckless and disproportionate by any standard.

Then there is this from President Obama on nuclear proliferation: "Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted. Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia. Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war."

But, of course, when it comes to Israel's nuclear arsenal, our entire policy consists of averting our eyes. The United States both pretends that Israel has no bombs and ignores Israel's refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Even though addressing Israel's nuclear bombs in some form might advance our efforts to deter an Iranian bomb, we refuse to do it. Is it any wonder that the Iranians take our non-proliferation demands with a large grain of salt?

I'll stop there because America's hypocrisy when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians is well-known. Even some Palestinians almost forgive Obama for it. More than one has told me, "What can he do? He can't fight the lobby."

But, of course he can. And he would prevail.

And he must, but not only for the sake of the Palestinians. Or for the sake of the United States whose interests are hurt worldwide by our one-sided policy on the Middle East.

But also for Israel's sake. Israel is too important to be sacrificed on the altar of illegal settlements and illegal occupation. The status quo - maintaining the occupation and watching the Palestinian population become a clear majority - threatens Israel's existence. No, I don't mean its existence as a democracy, but its existence at all.

History teaches that the powerless do not stay powerless forever. Remember, Israel was almost defeated by the combined forces of Egypt and Syria in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. And that was because the woefully unprepared Israeli government believed that the two Arab states had been so thoroughly defeated six years earlier that they could never mount a serious threat to Israel. Yet they did, and the miracle that is Israel was almost lost.

It's time to end the hypocrisy. The President of the United States has infinitely more power than the combined forces of a weak Israeli prime minister and a lobby that marches in lockstep behind him.

It's time to use it. Fairly. On both sides. If President Obama leaves office without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his Nobel Peace Prize will have earned a place on eBay.

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