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My View: Obama’s Speech at the UN Was a Re-Election Speech, Not Sound Foreign Policy

September 22, 2011

I know this is a contentious issue and people who read this blog know where I stand on it. I debated whether I should even put up a post about it but I decided I couldn’t ignore it altogether.

Haaretz has an interesting take on the President’s speech.

I appreciate the work Secretary Clinton has done to try to get both sides to the negotiating table- I don’t doubt her sincerity or her desire for peace. That said, it is painfully obvious that US domestic political concerns are driving our Mideast policy at a time when we can’t afford to alienate the Arab world or even our allies. The fear-mongering about the Democrats losing Jewish support, the ridiculous claims that this administration is anti-Israel etc. have undermined this administration’s original laudable policies about how to get the peace process moving. In essence, the administration has become a megaphone for right-wing Likud policies that it likely doesn’t even agree with. No one that knows Bibi Netanyahu’s history seriously believes he’s dedicated to good faith negotiations. When he appeared before Congress he stated that Jerusalem would never be divided, talks would not be based on 1967 borders, settlements would continue and he had the audacity to give President Obama orders that he should inform the Palestinians there would be no right of return (ie. refugees). In other words, there would be no two state solution and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.

This is why the Palestinians went to the United Nations. A people without a state, denied all discernible legal rights and having next to no bargaining power, cannot be expected to believe that after decades of occupation and continued illegal settlement activity, that they will get a fair deal with the US serving in the role as eternal protector of Israel’s interests, all the while pretending to be an honest broker. Are the Palestinians perfect? No. Have they squandered previous opportunities? Yes. That said, for the President of the U.S. to stand at the UN before the entire world and give credit to Arabs rising up and demanding their social and economic rights while simultaneously working to deny the Palestinians that same right, is hypocritical and cynical. And the world knows it.

The U.S. not only opposes a declaration of statehood at the UN, which has no hope of happening anyway, but we also oppose even the most minimal upgrade in their status. Why? We prefer that they not be able to use the UN to try to increase their own leverage in negotiations nor do we want to enable them to try to vindicate their rights under international law. The US, in essence, believes that there are no violations of Palestinian rights worthy of the UN’s time- it’s all written off as anti-Israel bias. The fact that the continued settlements are per se illegal doesn’t matter- only the Palestinians are denied any legal redress under international law and are instead required to negotiate with the occupying country for their freedoms and human rights. The comparison to Sudan and South Sudan is not compelling because there was no decades-long military occupation.

So, that’s how I feel. Again, I respect Secretary Clinton’s efforts and I am sure she is beyond frustrated with all of this. She very likely would disagree with my assessment above, and I also respect that- as I said, it’s a contentious issue. But in the end I believe that Israel will never be safe or secure so long as the occupation continues and the never-ending negotiations which seem to only serve to further entrench settlements in areas that change the facts on the ground so as to ensure there will never be a possibility for a Palestinian state with contiguous borders. As a result, it’s time to consider other options and I don’t believe the current US policy opposing any upgrade in the Palestinian’s status at the UN is in the best interest of the US in either the long or short term because of the changes taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. Our actions may very well isolate us further in the region at a critical time while continuing to provide extremists a cause to rally around.

UPDATE: David Rothkopf, writing over at Foreign Policy, also seems to think our strategy at the UN undermines our own national interest. And by the way, there is no shortage of people, particularly in Israel, who are perplexed by what the US is doing.

UPDATE II: Steve Clemmons over at the Washington Note has a good article up about Obama’s speech and I think this is worth highlighting:

Obama continues to parrot the line that peace can only be achieved between the “two parties”, that only they can really bring this global ulcer to a close, when they decide to negotiate. The fact is that the status quo of frozen negotiations is benefiting the dominant, settlement-expanding Israel — and the US, in promising to veto at the UN Security Council Palestine’s bid for official state recognition, is playing guarantor to one side, undermining the aspirations of others on the other side of the equation. What if the US had said to Kosovo — no statehood, no recognition from the US until you resolve all of your ongoing issues with Russia?

Obama’s position on this is dangerous in another sense as well. Obama — who looked to so many early in his rock star style rise to the Presidency as a leader on the level of a Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or Mandela — has assured the rise of Hamas, the legitimation of violence in pursuit of Palestinian political goals, by yet again showing that peaceful, non-violent moderates like Mahmoud Abbas ultimately get nothing — even if they play the role of the “good Palestinian,” the one who listens to his masters, who doesn’t get too disturbed when humiliated at Israel’s border check points and at UN Security Council meetings.

Abbas was not kidnapping Israeli soldiers nor firing rockets to generate political leverage in favor of getting his country’s dilemma back on to the roster of global concerns. This week he is doing what Gandhi did to the Brits, embarrassing the world as Gandhi did to the then globally sprawling United Kingdom for its hypocrisy and inhumanity. Abbas is using peaceful means to move his cause, playing by the rules, and actually taking the same track to attempted Palestinian statehood that the Israelis used.

And Obama is going to say no — rejecting Palestine’s bid at the UN Security Council. It is 2011 of course. 2012 will be an expensive year of political campaigning and this makes riling up some donors in the Jewish American community politically complicated. It should be noted that some enlightened Jewish Americans support a two state solution, peace, and even Mahmoud Abbas’ play at the United Nations.

If this was 2013, Obama might be in a different groove — but by then Palestinian and the broader Arab temperature may be such that they ultimately decide the two state track is folly — and much like Turkey giving up on its European identity aspirations — decides to pull back and subject a recalcitrant Israel to never-ending harassment and violence, assuring that Israel ultimately becomes a state of hard-edged, security-demanding Apartheid, all while the Palestinian demographic edge inside Israel’s borders booms while the Israeli Jewish population growth slows and perhaps even declines.

Obama is assuring the further emasculation and perhaps final demise of Palestine’s moderates. Obama is also treating the Israelis and Palestinians as if they are on equal footing, equally able to concede to each other’s demands. What Obama doesn’t get is that a substantial portion of Israel’s population loves not having a deal and never wants one. They are OK with a peace process to nowhere — but that is not acceptable for the less-endowed, less-powerful Palestinian side. Hamas is in the rejectionist corner as well, seeing its fortunes rise as earnest efforts at peace go nowhere.


The President needs to be told that this is a lame, counter-productive, irrational comparison to Israel-Palestine. Northern Ireland terrorism and political disruption could have continued another three hundred years and the world could endure it, moving past the tragedies and occasional loss of life. In the scheme of global affairs, Northern Ireland’s problems were a boutique problem that didn’t resonate globally.

Israel-Palestine tension in contrast comprises one of the world’s serious fault lines. Explosions there have dramatic echo effects that do matter globally. The US used to be able to absorb the consequences of failing to achieve peace among the parties — but those failures are increasingly eroding America’s strategic position in the world. The US can’t afford for Israel and Palestine to continue to fail to act responsibly in their mutual long term interests.

The second wrong-headed comment that Obama makes that both former Presidential Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would say — and which is totally wrong — is that we can’t want peace more than the Israelis and Palestinians, that peace can’t be achieved without “the parties” sitting down and agreeing to negotiate.

This is ridiculous. Both Israel and Palestine cannot achieve peace on their own. Their internal domestic institutions and political order cannot take the domestic political stress of delivering on a deal. There have to be parties to blame, an institution or set of governments like the Quartet, or the US itself, that forced Israel and Palestine to do what they needed to do to achieve peace, securing their long term interests in a tough neighborhood, but which will be disruptive in the short term to an array of political interests.

The Saudis, Jordanians, Russians, French, Americans, even the Egyptians I think, the Brazilians, the Turks, the British and Germans want and need peace between Israel and Palestine more than many inside these societies want.

Inside the United States, however, a “Middle East peace business” of lobbyists and communications professionals and arms salesman and others want the business to go on and on — not getting this package of problems resolved any time soon.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. MA NYC permalink
    September 22, 2011 10:53 am

    Thank you for writing about your personal view which is almost identical to mine. I suspect that years later we will learn that Secretary of the State Clinton differed somewhat with present policy. In fact, I have read somewhere that last year she advocated, privately, a policy where the US offers its own proposal for a peace treaty.

    What Rick Perry did and said in New York was abominable. What the Republicans are doing in their attempt to get Jewish votes is equally beyond the pale. Nevertheless, it should be also stated that President Obama did make an re-election speech instead of using this momentous moment, as President Sarkozy did, to clearly support the need, for both Palestinians and the Jewish peoples to resolve this conflict by having a two state solution. Both sides have suffered enough!

  2. Steve permalink
    September 22, 2011 11:52 am

    I agree with MA NYC- great post and well said. I think that Hillary and Obama are backed into a corner not only by Bibi’s right wing govt but by the Israel Lobby and the Congress that is in their back pocket.

    The pathetic part is that the GOP and Democrats who are running around threatening the Palestinians and demanding that the President drop to his knees and kiss Bibi’s ring, aren’t at all interested in resolving the conflict They are peace rejectionists and the never-ending peace process has become something of a cottage industry. Congress gives lip service to the two state solution knowing full well that as they pass resolutions or laws demanding the US embassy be moved to Jerusalem, while they openly proclaim the settlements are fine, while they refuse to discuss borders, they are in effect killing any chance for peace- and that’s the whole point. And they do this while proclaiming their eternal love for Israel despite the fact that everything they are doing will ensure Israel is LESS safe and more isolated than ever.

    The useless US media parrots the Israel talking points out of fear that if Americans actually knew what was really going on and what was at stake, they/we would be outraged. If you want good commentary on all of this go to the Israeli media- at least they have the guts to be honest about it.

    The pro-Israel lobby is not pro-Israel – what they support is their own political power and wealth.

  3. seamus6 permalink
    September 22, 2011 2:41 pm

    I watched the video of his comments on YouTube and was floored. Is this the same guy who spoke so eloquently about the plight of the Palestinians in Cairo and then again during his first speech at the UN.

    Does the US remember that Gandhi’s nonviolence movement was a major thorn in the side of the British and that he and his followers used peaceful civil disobedience and garnered the support of the entire world? Power concedes nothing without demand. The PLO and a good portion of Palestinians have renounced violence and are using the peaceful means at their disposal and what does the US, Europe etc. do? Pisses all over them. Clearly the message Obama wants to send is that the Palestinians should go back to blowing up school buses because it’s the only way to get the US and Israel’s attention since nonviolence is not only not rewarded, but actively punished.

  4. seamus6 permalink
    September 22, 2011 2:45 pm

    69% of Israelis say the US should recognize Palestine at the UN:

  5. Bea permalink
    September 24, 2011 3:21 pm

    And when hasn’t he been all about himself? Presidents have a healthy ego, but Obama takes the cake. When I think how things could have been if Hillary had been president, it depresses me.

    Oh well………………

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