Barack Obama has raised great hopes in the Middle East when he was one of only four American presidents to be awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. But now, almost four years later, he has yet to show any sign of achievement in ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The Washington-based correspondent of the liberal Israeli paper Haaretz wondered aloud this week, at the beginning of the presidential election in which Obama remains the front runner, whether his neglect means that he is “throwing the Palestinians under the bus?”
Natasha Mozgovaya based her point on the fact that there weren’t many meetings in the last two weeks between White House officials and Palestinian or Arab-American delegations — that were “crashed” by the president.
This was a reference to the American president’s staged practice of breaking into scheduled meetings between his senior staffers and visiting delegations, as when he “dropped by” two recent but separate sessions at the White House with groups of American Jews, one Orthodox the other conservative.
Obama’s “dithering” in handling the US policies vis-à-vis Syria and Sudan was also noted recently by Nicholas D. Kristof. The New York Times columnist described this position as “increasingly lame, ineffective and contrary to American interests and values”.
In the Haaretz account, Obama assured his Jewish audience that “there is no justification for Israel’s feeling ‘lonely, pressured and pushed back’.”
He added that compromise is required from both sides, but his administration was decidedly more attentive to Israel than to the Palestinians and repeatedly stresses Israel’s security needs.
Nevertheless, Obama is quoted by Haaretz as having told one of the Jewish groups that he was “cautiously pessimistic about the prospects of peace under current circumstances [and] he somberly noted, in fact, that the window of opportunity for making peace might be closed already, because Palestinian positions have ‘deteriorated’.”
He nevertheless vowed: “We’ll keep trying.”
According to the Haaretz report, Obama underlined that “his administration believes that Israeli security is more important than evenhandedness”. The Haaretz report carried an incriminating headline for the report: “In an attempt to garner votes, Obama is ignoring the Palestinians.”
Adding oil to the fire, the Obama administration was this week playing host to Israeli President Shimon Peres, one of the longest surviving founders of Israel who is well remembered for his hawkish policies. Peres was, surprisingly, recently awarded by Obama the coveted US Medal of Freedom when all are aware that the Israeli leader does not wield any significant power in his ceremonial position.
At a meeting at the Defence Department, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta congratulated the visiting Israeli leader on the award. His unbelievable assessment: “It’s a fitting recognition of your life’s work ... [which] has been to advance peace, human dignity and freedom.”
Yet top on the visiting Israeli leader’s Washington agenda is reportedly another attempt to seek the release of the convicted spy Jonathan Pollard from a US prison. He was found guilty in the 1980s of passing classified information to Israel; for several years Israel did not acknowledge that Pollard had spied.
A former Israeli ambassador to the US, Itamar Rabinowitz, explained this week that the Americans hold a “suspicion that Pollard was not alone, and there were others and that despite its promise, Israel did not reveal all its cards to the US on this and similar issues”.
Among the early negative reactions to these one-sided US policies one came from Cape Town, where religious and labour unions objected to an upcoming visit to South Africa by president and Mrs. Obama. They are scheduled to receive during the trip the Cape Town Freedom of the City Award.
Despite the longstanding relationship between the US civil rights and South African liberation movements, Tony Ehrenreich, the provincial secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions said he was “appalled” by the granting of the award, citing “the atrocious behaviour of the USA on the Palestinian question, and their endorsement of Israel aggression against the people of Palestine”.
What is dismaying about all this finagling is the role that money plays in the American election.
The Jewish peace organisation J Street announced that it was donating about $1.5 million to 60 Democratic candidates who support the two-state solution which, by most accounts, is now on its death bed. Of course, the powerful and well-endowed American Israeli Public Affairs Committee has not revealed its large budget, which may not be all that necessary since the Gallup Poll has reported that Jewish voters prefer Obama over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney by 64 to 29 per cent.
But all this may get lost on the wayside if the Palestinians unify their ranks, as seems likely in the near future, and Obama, in turn, abandons his Mideast stance if reelected next November, as seems likely.
The writer is a Washington-based columnist.