Instead, Obama sounded just as bellicose as George W. Bush and John McCain (and Hillary Clinton), with the one exception that he made his argument, with many clarifications and reservations, for eventual dialogue with states like Iran. Obama even endorsed Israel's recent airstrike on Syria (apparently on a nuclear reactor in progress), which in effect means that he is endorsing a similar strike by Israel on Iran--right in concert with Ehud Olmert's alarmist remarks today about the danger posed by Iran.
Buried in this speech was a reference to Jerusalem, which Obama, again fully endorsing Israel's position without reservation, declared must remain the "undivided capital of Israel." To me, the issue of Jerusalem is a good example of how Israeli leaders have made suckers of American Jews, getting them to endorse, in part out of ignorance, the most provocative and aggressive of Israel's policies. Jerusalem is discussed as if it is somehow holy territory, sacred to Jews, when in fact modern-day Jerusalem is a sprawling metropolis and the result of decades of annexations of surrounding territory far, far beyond the site of David's and Solomon's capital and its temple. East Jerusalem, in particular, which was annexed by Israel after the 1967 war, is occupied contrary to international law and has little to do with Biblical Jerusalem. In other words, Israel's claim to an "undivided" Jerusalem is just part of the grab of West Bank land that has been going on for more than 40 years.
About 10 years ago, I spent two weeks in Israel and Palestine preparing an article called "Archaeology in the Holy Land" for Science. On the way back from visiting Jericho, where one of the earliest known early farming sites was excavated during the 1950s by the British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon, I drove through the entire span of East Jerusalem on my way back to the American Colony Hotel. East Jerusalem is Palestinian through and through, and most of it is so far from the Jewish sections--which are across the high stone walls of the old city in West Jerusalem--that any notion that Israel should control this area is ludicrous.
What is most alarming about Obama's speech is its apparent promise (and one promise that I hope he will not keep if elected president) to let Israel call the shots about its relationship with the Palestininans. The fact that the international community has done next to nothing to intervene and resolve this conflict over so many decades is a major scandal and a desperate tragedy; I can only hope that Obama will demonstrate his true friendship to Israel by helping the "Jewish state" extricate itself from the threat that its own policies pose to its future. Ironically, this issue can be, and is, discussed freely in Israel itself, but it is still verboten to talk about it in the United States--especially if one wants to be elected president.
Photo: from an Obama speech to AIPAC in 2007.
Addendum: Some readers will recall that Robert Malley, a former Mideast advisor to Obama during the campaign, was forced to resign when it was revealed that he had been talking with Hamas leaders. But in todays International Herald Tribune, Malley, together with Hussein Agha, pens an opinion piece filled with much more wisdom than could be found in Obama's speech. Agha and Malley point out that the United States has been largely absent while Israel and other Mideast players have on its own initiative begun talking with its enemies: Israel is having talks with Hamas brokered by Egypt and with Syria brokered by Turkey, and the recent accord in Lebanon was mediated by Qatar. All this is going on against U.S. advice to avoid talking with the "enemy." The authors add:
The United States has cut itself off from the region on the dubious assumption that it can somehow maximize pressure on its foes by withholding contact, choosing to flaunt its might in the most primitive and costly of ways. It has pushed its local allies toward civil wars - arming Fatah against Hamas; financing some Lebanese forces against Hezbollah - they could not and did not win. And it has failed to understand that its partners could achieve more in alliance than in conflict with their opposition.
And they conclude:
Many questions surround these three still-incomplete deals. They could collapse or move in unintended directions. They may end up serving a quite different purpose, like constraining Syria's, Hezbollah's or Hamas's ability to retaliate in the event of an American or Israeli attack against Iran. On all this there is understandable uncertainty.
But for now at least, there's no great mystery about where the United States stands. At a critical time in a critical region, it is quite simply missing in action.The axing of Malley, one of the smartest Mideast experts we have today, should have been a warning that Obama would toe the AIPAC line, which is actually much more strident than Israel's. For the sake of Israelis, Palestinians, and everyone in the Middle East, let's hope Obama invites Malley back into the advisor fold once he is elected president.
Update (June 6): The Washington Post reports that Obama has thought the better of his comments about an "undivided" Jerusalem. The key grafs:
Facing criticism from Palestinians, Sen. Barack Obama acknowledged yesterday that the status of Jerusalem will need to be negotiated in future peace talks, amending a statement earlier in the week that the city "must remain undivided."
Obama quickly backtracked yesterday in an interview with CNN.
"Well, obviously, it's going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations," Obama said when asked whether Palestinians had no future claim to the city.Update (June 7): More trouble for Obama and negative reactions from Arabs and Palestinians over his Jerusalem comments, as reported in the New York Times today.