Friday, November 6, 2009

Change Obama Style -- in Israel/Palestine and Afghanistan Too

Whatever Hillary Clinton may say about how helpful Benjamin Netanyahu’s “promise” not to start new settlements in the occupied territories may be, and no matter how much Palestinians may find themselves without alternatives to acquiescence in the face of overwhelming Israeli military dominance, the fact remains that the prospects for a viable Palestinian state are rapidly diminishing as settlements expand; the point of no return may already have been reached. Because Israel is utterly dependent on American support – economically, militarily and diplomatically -- the United States effectively calls the shots there, even if only by giving Israel carte blanche to do whatever it pleases. In the present circumstances, there are three general courses U.S. policy can take; the first two involve departures from the past (i.e. change); the third would continue the usual policy of (depending on one’s point of view) malign or benign neglect:

1) The United States can demand not just that the pace of settlement construction slow down or even stop altogether, but that some, indeed most, settlements be dismantled – along the lines indicated in the near-agreement reached at Tabah in the final days of the Clinton administration. Unless Israel is forced to give back at least that much of what it has illegally appropriated since the so-called peace process began, a two-state solution will be out of the question because there will be no way to make a viable state out of geographically isolated Bantustans.

2) Or it can impose a one-state solution in which, as throughout the modern world, members of all ethnic groups enjoy equal citizenship rights and full human rights. Since the very idea of an ethnic state rightly offends modern (post-American and French Revolution) sensibilities, this is plainly the preferred outcome for everyone who is not in the thrall of Israeli nationalism, Jewish ethnocentrism or Christian Zionism. But since a secular democratic state in “the Land of Israel” would entail the end of a Jewish state, and since Israeli nationalism, Jewish ethnocentrism and Christian Zionism are weighty positions in the United States and Israel, this outcome would be much harder to implement than a two-state solution with a viable Palestinian state.

This is why (1) is what the United States should impose, even if it is morally and philosophically indefensible. It is indefensible; the idea of a Jewish state – not a state of its citizens but of a self-identified ethnic group scattered around the world -- was always a bad idea – even in the aftermath of the Nazi Judeocide when, thanks in part to the efforts of anti-Semites and Zionists alike, Western countries, the United States especially, were unwilling to absorb more than a handful of Jewish refugees. But belief in the legitimacy of a Jewish state in “the land of Israel” has become so entrenched in our political culture, and in the political culture of Israeli Jews, that it may now be impossible to expunge the idea. There may be no alternative other than to come to terms with it.

The Obama administration is, of course, officially in favor of a two-state solution, as is most of the rest of the world and most of the (increasingly disorganized) leadership of the Palestinian national movement. But, as in so many other areas, Obama only “talks the talk” – raising expectations that are soon dashed thanks to his singular reluctance to turn his words into deeds.

Of course, in the case of Israel/Palestine, the transition from words to deeds would be unusually difficult even if the will were present – because the Israel lobby has a stranglehold over the Congress of the United States. To implement real, not just verbal, changes in American policy towards Israel would require that Obama spend vast amounts of his rapidly diminishing political capital. He could have done it last spring; maybe he can do it still. But don’t hold your breath.

3) Thus the most likely prospect is that the United States will continue to permit Israel to dictate its Israel/Palestine policy – continuing the status quo in Israel and the occupied territories. The State Department’s reaction to the Goldstone Commission Report – saying only how “disappointing” it is – is a portent of things to come. Israel will therefore remain the settler state it has always been, and will continue its policy of creating “facts on the ground” accordingly. It will also continue to crush opposition to its Apartheid regime on the West Bank and to its on-going crime against humanity in Gaza -- by any means it deems necessary. Count on Obama to let it happen.

The Occupation has persisted now for more than forty years, and its trajectory has been, almost without exception, from bad to worse. Unless Obama rises to the occasion, expect the downward trend to continue into the near and not-too-distant future. But it can’t go on forever; the demographics of the situation and strategic factors beyond American control make a Final Solution to the Palestine Question impossible. In the long-term, supporting the status quo will mean not only a further diminution of Israel’s Herrenvolk democracy and its generally liberal civil society, but a diminution in the very prospect of maintaining Israel as a Jewish state.

The end of Israel as the state of the Jewish people would not be an outcome to regret. The beneficiaries would not just be the indigenous population of Palestine and peoples elsewhere who are historically or currently Muslim. The end of Israel would be good for “diaspora” Jews too, inasmuch as Zionism has hijacked Jewish identity and the Jewish religion – to no good ends in either case. I would venture that the end of Israel as an ethnic state would be an especially good thing for Israeli Jews as well. If nothing else, it would relieve them of the burden of oppressing their Arab compatriots. It would even advance the cause of establishing a safe haven for world Jewry, one of the few Zionist aims that is worth preserving. After all, the Israeli settler state is now the only place on earth where, thanks to the Palestinian resistance, Jews are in danger just for being Jewish. But the end of Israel as a Jewish state is an outcome that will be vigorously resisted in ways that could well put the region and indeed the planet in grave jeopardy. The American government can prevent this result. But don’t count on Obama to do anything of the sort. He’s too much of a go-with-the-flow and don’t-make-enemies kinda guy.

Change Obama style is change in words only – and even then, if the words are carefully parsed, there’s less change spoken of than most people assume. In this case, that’s bad for Israelis and for Palestinians and for diaspora Jews. It’s bad for Americans who are not Jews too.

The so-called realist position in international relations theory holds that there are genuine “national interests,” interests of the entire nation as distinct from its national elites. I am skeptical of this contention. But if anything does count as a national interest, surely a more “balanced” Israel/Palestine policy is a prime candidate. From a realist point of view, unqualified support for the policies of Israeli governments may have been warranted when the “enemies” were “International Communism” or Arab nationalism. Then, arguably, it was useful to have an independent state in the region that could function as an offshore military asset of the American empire; which is more or less what Israel became after 1967. But when the enemy is religious fanaticism, Islamicism, there is little that Israel can do that is in the American national interest. What it does instead is help generate even more fanaticism. Along with the continuing occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s Israel/Palestine policies are doing untold harm to the American national interest already. Needless to say, Obama is doing nothing to change this unhappy state of affairs, except by raising expectations that his inaction then quickly confounds.

* *

Political difficulties in the way of doing the right thing are less formidable in the case of Afghanistan, where nothing like an Israel lobby exists. But, even there, it is change Obama style, not real change, that is in the offing.

Would withdrawal, a “strategic retreat,” be in the national interest? Here the situation is more complicated than with Israel/Palestine. There is no doubt that the American people, the vast majority anyway, would be better off were the United States not at war with Afghanistan – if only because it would diminish the likelihood of the kind of blowback experienced eight years ago at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But, for America’s ruling elites, the situation is not so clear. To be sure, there are sectors of American capitalism that benefit from on-going wars, and Afghanistan is not without strategic importance. But, even from the vantage point of those who do benefit from the Afghan War, it is far from obvious that the benefits outweigh the risks. After all, blowback blows back over everyone equally.

Once upon a time, Barack Obama called the Iraq War a “stupid war.” For reasons having mainly to do with his electoral campaign in 2008, the Afghan War got a different billing; it was somehow a “war of necessity.” That made no sense then, and it makes even less sense now. The time is long past due that Obama should come out and declare that the Afghan War is a stupid war too.

This would hardly be news to anyone. But, for our elites, it hardly matters. They know it’s a stupid war from which no good will come, but they also believe that, once in, there is no obvious way out. Like street-level gangsters who think they must never be seen as weak, the commanders of our capitalist economy think that they cannot permit their state, the imperial center of the empire from which they benefit egregiously, to seem to back down in defeat. As their counterparts did four decades ago in Vietnam, they will therefore do their best to keep the war going beyond any chance of victory -- whatever “victory” might mean in this case -- just to avoid (or postpone) an outcome they cannot abide.

That’s why the “debate” over what to do next, eight years into a long lost war, is between the likes of General Stanley McCrystal, Vice President Joe Biden, and Senator John Kerry; and why withdrawal is “off the table.” McCrystal wants more troops – 40,000 of them at least – to keep the murder and mayhem going Iraq-surge style. He and his fellow “counter-insurgency” advocates – including the hapless but wildly popular General Petreus – are proponents of “nation building;” they therefore propose staying engaged in Afghanistan for as long as it takes. Leaving aside the moral fact that Afghanistan’s fate is for the Afghan people to decide, not American elites or defense intellectuals or Generals who lead economic conscripts into battle, the good General is plainly pissing in the wind. It is beyond the means of the American military to accomplish anything like what he has in mind. This is why his might be called the throw good money after bad strategy. And not just money – lives and limbs too.

Meanwhile, our Vice President wants a technological fix – targeting “terrorists” only, wherever they may be (in other words, expanding efforts to bring the war into the tribal areas of Pakistan, in plain disregard of our ally’s sovereignty). His strategy, compared to McCrystal’s, would probably save lives and money, but it would also destabilize the region as much or more than McCrystal’s would. No surprise there: Joe Biden has always been a reliable source of atrocious ideas. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m glad that Obama made Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State. It could have been worse; it could have been Joe.

That leaves John Kerry, who proposes keeping things pretty much as they are. Kerry’s position is the most honest of the three main contenders: it reflects a realization that the only reason to remain in Afghanistan -- the only achievable outcome, in any case – is to avoid, or rather postpone, the appearance of defeat. Ironically, Kerry’s proposals, eschewing even the appearance of change, would do the least harm. But they are still bound to lead eventually to as bad or worse consequences for Afghanistan as would immediate withdrawal, and like Biden’s proposals, though to a lesser degree, they will continue to destabilize the region.

I’d wager that Kerry will win the debate. After all his pondering, Obama will decide that the best, least bad, course of action is just to keep on keeping on. He owes it, after all, to the ruling class.

But this is foolishness. No good will come from muddling on ahead in Afghanistan, just as no good will come from letting Israel continue to dictate America’s policies in the Middle East. For anything good to come out of the present situation the only real alternative is, as it were, to give peace a chance. That would be a real change, not a change Obama style. But for that to happen, Obama would have to be the agent of change that most of his supporters thought he was. A year after he made an indelible mark on history just by the fact of having won, Obama has yet to show that he is anything of the kind.

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