Palestinians have long since learned that no matter how low their expectations are of an American president addressing their historical rights in Palestine, they are not low enough.
In this instance, Barack Obama began his visit to Israel by laying a wreath at the grave of Theodore Herzl, the colonial theoretician of the Zionist experiment in Palestine, visiting the Israel Museum to view the Dead Sea Scrolls and inspecting Israel’s US-funded Patriot missile system.
All three sojourns were intended to be — and no American official is prevaricating about the fact — pregnant with obvious symbolism, clear about the statement they intended to make: Zionism (an ethnic cleansing movement that the entire population of the twin cities of Lydda and Ramallah, who were expelled en masse in 1948, will have stories to tell you about) is a noble endeavour; Jews have an ancestral right to colonise Palestine, ignoring in this case how many countries, absurdly, would have to be shuffled and reshuffled if a claim as old as these folks have is to be redeemed; and that Washington will continue its massive arming of Israel, thus buying into this entity’s disingenuous argument that more and better weapons would permit it “to take bigger chances for peace”.
And out of the window with that billet-doux that the then newly elected American president delivered to the Arab people in Cairo in 2008 — where he pledged that his administration would henceforth show even-handedness and compassion, not to mention moral probity, in its Middle East foreign policy.
It is obvious that neither were Palestinians holding their breath nor Arabs stifling their yawns at the prospect of this 48-hour visit that the American chief executive undertook in the region. President Obama had already shown his colours. He is no different from any of his predecessors, whose sundry utterances about their country’s “unshakable commitment to the Jewish people’s security and well-being” were no mere platitudes, but earnest pledges, even where these pledges came at the cost of the insecurity and hellish-being of the Palestinians.
American presidents, from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush, have come and gone, and nothing changed. So why, pray tell, should Obama be any different? Close to five decades of being ethnic-cleansed, exiled, deported, colonised, ID’ed, robbed, occupied, check-pointed, bombed, imprisoned, dehydrated, pauperised and, well, dictated to on how to live their daily lives, the Palestinians are still seen as not deserving of a fair deal.
Truisms aside, when it comes to Palestine, Washington has never evinced fairness. It has instead always, as Obama put it, in a way defining every American administration’s stance on the issue, “covered Israel’s back”. As far back as October 1952, according to Isaac Alteras in his exhaustive book, Eisenhower and Israel: US-Israeli Relations 1953-1960 (University Press of Florida, 1993), Ike [Dwight D. Eisenhower] sent a message to a Republican fund-raising dinner in New York extolling “the valiant state of Israel, democracy’s outpost in the Middle East”, urging “every American ... to join the effort to make secure forever the future of this newest member of the family of nations”.
And what about the million odd Palestinian refugees who had languished in camps since 1948 and at whose cost this newest member of the family of nations was established? Well, according to Alteras’s research, the American president suggested that they were “better suited to desert life” in the surrounding countries than in a “modern state like Israel”. Did Ike really believe this racist hogwash? Maybe he did not, but he sure as heck believed this: “There are five million Jewish voters in the US and very few Arabs.”
Every American president, whether trolling for Jewish votes or not, has succumbed to the bluster of the Israel lobby, for we all recall what even Jimmy Carter (yes, even him, the man who had made human rights the centrepiece of his administration) contritely had to say when taken to task by the same lobby for his less-than-ardent support for Tel Aviv: “I would rather commit political suicide than harm Israel.” And soon after Lyndon Johnson inherited the presidency, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, he told the Israeli ambassador that no other president would do more for Israel. “Hey, I’ve got three Cohns in my cabinet”, boasted the feisty Texan.
As for Israeli leaders themselves, the issue is not whether American presidents kow-tow to them (that is expected as a norm), but how much kow-towing should be proferred. Regardless of the excesses they engage in, or how far they go in embarrassing American officials, and even the American president himself, they know they are the tail that wags the dog. It did not faze them, for example, that they humiliated Joe Biden, a very pro-Israel Vice-President, by announcing a new colonisation project in occupied Jerusalem during his trip to Israel in 2010, or having the American people watch their president in the Oval Office lectured to (complete with finger-wagging) by Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to Washington in 2011.
I will bet the family jewellery that this same Netanyahu would have similarly lectured the American president before the latter left to return home. The thrust of the lecture would have been this: We will colonise all we darn well please, wherever we darn well please, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it! And America’s Commander in Chief will eat humble pie and take it all on the chin. A sure bet, no?
Now the question, really, is not what Americans, but what Arabs will do here. It is about time, is it not, that Arabs devise a strategy that will see them as the only determining force in Palestine’s destiny? That should be one of the major challenges facing Arabs in the new order that proceeds from the Arab Spring, wouldn’t you agree? Surely we are not that helpless, that dependent a people, are we?
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.