Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2012, Pages 14, 66

Special Report

Obama Continues His Dithering

By George S. Hishmeh

President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to Israeli President Shimon Peres in the East Room of the White House, June 13, 2012. Having been appointed interim prime minister following the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Peres was running for the office—to which he never was elected—in 1996 when he ordered the bombing of southern Lebanon. Israeli warplanes bombed the U.N. peacekeeping mission outpost in Qana, where many Lebanese residents had taken refuge. Among the 100 civilians killed in the attack were two American boys from Dearborn, MI, Abdul-Muhsen Abboud, 9, and his brother Hadi, 8, who were visiting their grandmother in Qana. (Mandel Ngan/AFT/Getty Images)

Barack Obama 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 signs of achievement in ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In fact, the Washington-based correspondent of the liberal Israeli paper Haaretz wondered aloud in her June 7 article, at the beginning of the presidential election here 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 first two weeks of June 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 and the other Conservative.

Obama's "dithering" was also noted recently by Nicholas D. Kristof in the president's handling of U.S. policies toward both Syria and Sudan, which the New York Times columnist described 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 went on: Compromise is required from both sides, but his administration is decidedly more attentive to Israel than to the Palestinians and repeatedly stresses Israel's security needs.

Nevertheless, Obama reportedly 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.'" But he vowed, "We'll keep trying." According to the Haaretz report, Obama underlined that "his administration believes that Israeli security is more important than even-handedness."

It was noticeable that Haaretz 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 in mid-June played host to Israeli President Shimon Peres, one of the longest surviving founders of Israel who is well-remembered for his hawkish policies. Peres has surprisingly been awarded by President Obama the coveted U.S. 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 Defense Department, 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."

But top on the visiting Israeli leader's Washington agenda is reportedly another attempt to seek the release of the convicted spy Jonathan Pollard from his U.S. prison. Pollard was found guilty in the 1980s for passing classified information to Israel, and for several years Israel did not acknowledge that Pollard had spied. A former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Itamar Rabinovich, recently explained 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 U.S. on this and similar issues."

One of the early negative reactions to these one-sided U.S. policies came from, of all places, Cape Town, where religious and labor unions have objected to an upcoming visit to South Africa by President and Mrs. Obama. Both are scheduled to receive during the trip the Cape Town Freedom of the City award. Despite the longstanding relationship between the U.S. civil rights and South African liberation movements, Tony Ehrenreich, the provincial secretary of Congress of South African Trade Unions, said he was "appalled" at the award, citing "the atrocious behavior of the USA on the Palestinian question, and their endorsement of Israel aggression against the people of Palestine."

What is also dismaying about all this finagling is the role that money plays in the American election. The American Jewish "pro-Israel, pro-peace" organization J Street has announced that it is 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 (AIPAC) has not revealed its large budget, which may not be all that necessary, since the Gallup Poll has reported that Jewish voters preferred Obama over his Republican opponent, the former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, by 64 to 29 percent.

But all this may be lost on the wayside should the Palestinians unify their ranks, as seems likely in the near future (see story on p. 11 of this issue), and Obama, in turn, abandon his defunct Mideast stance should he be re-elected next November. 

George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He was the former editor-in-chief of The Daily Star of Lebanon.

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