Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Great Expectations

Though the plain fact is easily lost on all-Michael-Jackson-all-the-time cable networks, Barack Obama seems to have come to the conclusion, six months into his term, that so long as he talks a good earful, he can neglect or even betray his most loyal constituencies – acceding instead to bureaucratic inertia and the wishes of America’s corporate masters.

But will Obama’s friendly, but skeptical, audiences in the Middle East be similarly forgiving? In Cairo several weeks ago, he talked a good earful. He generated great expectations. What will happen if, in due course, nothing happens? In particular, what will happen if the Israel/Palestine conflict gets put on the back-burner – along with the Employee Free Trade Act, the prosecution of Bush era war criminals, the promises of transparency, of homosexual equality, of serious efforts to avert environmental catastrophes and all the rest?

The short answer is: there will be hell to pay. That’s why Obama’s Cairo speech, along with other expectation raising gestures, could misfire badly. Given Obama’s governing style, that could well come to pass. Time will tell, and there isn’t much time left. The only thing that is clear at his point is that Obama could make good on the expectations he raised -- if he wants to badly enough. That’s a big if.

Because Israel is utterly dependent upon the U.S. diplomatically and on the U.S. (and Europe) economically, and because, even with its nuclear arsenal, it is largely dependent upon the U.S. militarily as well, Obama – or any American President -- can in principle force Israel to pursue peace. But, at this point, that would require more than just “facilitating” negotiations. Involving the U.S. in negotiations worked, sort of, for Jimmy Carter at Camp David; it brought about a Cold Peace between Israel and its only real military rival, Egypt. It might have worked for Bill Clinton at Taba too; there was a chance there to force Israel to live side by side with a viable Palestinian state. But Clinton was too weakened politically by “the Lewinsky affair” and other factors, and he was on his way out in any case. It was an opportunity missed.

That was ages ago, however, in diplomatic time. Negotiations alone can’t work now – especially not with a right-wing government in Israel, vulnerable to pressures from theocrats and nationalists even farther to the right, and opposed not by feckless social democrats (Labor is part of Netanyahu’s coalition!) but by the party of Ariel Sharon. It probably couldn’t work any more even in a more propitious political climate because of demographic changes within Israel: there just aren’t enough progressive and “moderate” Israelis any more or professionals and entrepreneurs who would benefit from peace to counter the theocrats (many of them benighted North American Jews), the nationalists (many of them recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union), and a “mizrahi” underclass brimming with hostility towards their Arab cousins who want – and need – an eternal enemy.

This is not to say that there is nothing Obama can now do; quite the contrary. The United States is now, more than ever, in a position, in concert with other world and regional powers, to impose a durable settlement of the conflict – by simultaneously promising to guarantee Israel’s security (if not within its 1967 borders then within the framework established at Taba) and by threatening Israeli elites with isolation and outright abandonment if they don’t go along. Bilateral negotiations, facilitated by the United States, were never the best way to force Israel to make peace. More direct interventions by the powers that created a Jewish state and that sustain it were always more likely to result in success. Now the better way is the only feasible way.

This is to say that Obama must force Israel’s business and political classes to take on the settler movement and their ideological allies. They can do it, if Obama makes them an offer they can’t refuse. Of course, for Obama to do this, he would have to take on the Israel lobby. That’s not as ominous a prospect as may appear because the Israel lobby is fast becoming a paper tiger. It never really represented mainstream American Jewish opinion; most American Jews, after all, are indifferent to Zionist concerns and only vaguely attached to the Jewish state. Recently, the Israel lobby – essentially a lobby for the sectors of Israeli society that doom a negotiated settlement – has been increasingly threatened by growing numbers of mainstream American Jews willing, in varying degrees, to stand up to it. J-Street, the liberal-moderate alternative to AIPAC, is just the tip of the iceberg. The Israel lobby is also weakened by the diminished power of fundamentalist Protestants, including “Christian Zionists,” in the post-Bush era. For as long as there has been a powerful, organized Israel lobby (in other words, since the 1967 and especially the 1973 wars), there has never been a better time to become free of its influence.

Obama knows what he has to do, and he has the political skills and political capital to do it. But he has so far been too much the Democrat to do much of anything bold or visionary, much less this. On the domestic scene, he has yet to pay a price for his “pragmatic” “bipartisanship” – in other words, for his pusillanimity. That’s because it has so far been only his liberal supporters he’s been stringing along. Just as liberals won’t take their own side in an argument, as Robert Frost wisely put it, they positively thrive on being shunted aside for civility’s sake. They value their own “reasonableness” over everything else, including results. However Obama’s Cairo speech was not addressed to American liberals, but to people in the Muslim world – or, better, the historically Muslim world. They are wiser to the ways of the world and therefore not likely to be so forgiving.

No comments: