Barack Obama, Israel, Iran and Hamas

(This is the fourth and final article of the On Zionism series.)

In a recent article, Obama. What’s Complicated Here?, Gershom Gorenberg at South Jerusalem explains why he thinks Barack Obama should get the support of all right-thinking Israelis (left-thinking Israelis in Gorenberg’s case):

The one candidate who speaks in clear terms of taking a new approach to the Mideast is Obama. This is what scares the small coterie of American Jewish rightists who would eagerly fight to the last Israeli. If you care about Israel, you should hit “delete” when you get their emails.

Obama is the one candidate who had the sense to oppose the war in Iraq. He’s the one candidate whose statement on Israel expresses support for a two-state solution, which is the country’s path to peaceful future and is today the consensus position in Israel. He’s the one proposing a clear break from the disastrous Bush policies, and a turn to trying diplomacy.

Matt Yglesias at The Atlantic does find a complication though.

I hope that folks like Gershom who have sound views on this matter are right about what they’re hearing, but Marty Peretz likes what he’s hearing, too and it’s genuinely not clear to me what Obama’s trying to say. In part, I do think that reflects the fact that the divide between the hawk and dove camps is, at this point, actually quite a bit narrower than it’s historically been. But fundamentally it’s a reflection of a political strategy of deliberate ambiguity so we’ll just have to see what happens.

That Yglesias does not buy Obama’s post-partisan pitch may partly explains Matt’s suspiciousness, and he has partly answered his own question (the US being ridiculously rightist on Israel at the moment, well to the right of the Israelis centre according to Gorenberg). In an earlier post Yglesias fingers the difference between McCain and Obama as McCain’s insistence that to negotiate with Iran would be to offer Iran prestige, yet in 2006 McCain was talking of engaging with Hamas, something that Obama says he won’t do until Hamas recognises Israel and renounces violence.

Yglesias’s colleague, Marc Ambinder, offers a shrewd analysis of the situation, where he identifies the real issue of how to deal with Iran. McCain clearly favours a military solution while Obama seems to accept a realist analysis—an analysis that seems consistent with the one that emerged from Trita Parsi’s Treacherous Alliance (see also his article on the release of the Iran NIE in November and his recent article on battle for Basra), a repudiation of the neoconservative pose that has been reflected in a most interesting quarter.

“We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage . . . and then sit down and talk with them,” Gates said. “If there is going to be a discussion, then they need something, too. We can’t go to a discussion and be completely the demander, with them not feeling that they need anything from us.”

If Marty Peretz is expecting Obama to start bombarding Iran into compliance he is likely to be disappointed and if Gorenberg thinks Obama will open up talks with Hamas in February he will be disappointed, but such sensible, well-informed persons are unlikely to believe either proposition.

And it is worth pondering David Trimble’s reflections on the rush to miss-apply the lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process. While Trimble’s account is naturally selective—if various people hadn’t made efforts to engage the Republicans in the political process, stridently opposed as they were by the unionist parties, there surely would be no peace process—he makes a valid point that it is unwise to deal officially with non-state actors running private armies until they are irreversibly committed to an exclusively political process. Hamas have expressed a willingness to deal with an Obama presidency because it takes a serious approach focused on realities in the region rather than what is expedient in domestic US politics. And we should bear in mind that it is unreasonable to demand that Hamas formally recognise Israel until it know what it is recognising—Israel not having defined its borders.

With such bitter and entrenched conflicts all parties must deny they are talking to the other side, and it is easy to credit Obama with being perfectly candid in expressing a refusal to negotiate with Hamas until they renounce military means to settle their differences with Israel. Hamas will have to be eased into the process, and at some stage Israel will define its borders and Hamas will have a properly defined entity that it can be pressed into recognising de jure. Meanwhile, the very fact that they are seeking to engage in negotiations with Israel means that they are in de facto recognition of Israel (a point they have passed long ago).

Jeffery Goldberg feels that Obama’s support for Israel is real. Obama understands that the staggeringly incompetent and aggressive neoconservative policies have strengthened Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, and weakened Israel, through a succession of policies that have backfired from the Iraq war through the Israeli 2006 invasion of Lebanon and the encouragement of Palestinian elections, followed by clumsy attempts to subvert them.

Zionists should recognise the value of a return to reality, and reality being messy and dynamic, is going to require subtle, nuanced and flexible policies. Such policies may attract wide bipartisan support among serious people who find the prospect of the empire endlessly manufacturing its own reality through military projection exhausting and incredible.


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