There are only a few weeks standing between us and January 20, when United States President-elect Donald Trump becomes ‘President Trump’. But many are still clinging onto some hope, however desperate, that this period of time, albeit rather short, will bring about a sea change.
One of these persisting hopes is that US President Barack Obama is still different from all of his predecessors and his intentions regarding justice for the Palestinian people, despite an eight-year legacy pointing to the contrary, is a paramount priority. And there are reasons for that.
“Barack Obama entered the White House more deeply informed about and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than any incoming [US] president before him,” wrote Nathan Thrall, in the New York Review of Books last September.
His prior knowledge and sympathy for Palestinians were predicated on friendship and regular contacts with various Palestinian-American intellectuals, including Professors Rashid Khalidi and Edward Said; and also because he is a Black man with family roots extending to Kenya, where words such as ‘colonialism’, ‘imperialism’ and ‘foreign occupation’ were not entirely detached academic concepts.
The hope that Obama was different, or rather, ought to be different, was further cemented during the president’s first days in office. Notably, his first call to an international leader was to Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President Mahmoud Abbas; and Obama’s first visit to the Middle East region did not include Israel.
However, the Obama administration quickly faltered on pursuing any just and peaceful solution to the conflict in Palestine, and, with time, learned that toeing the Israeli line was the safest route for a US President. Alas, the man who generated temporary ‘hope’ failed to bring about lasting ‘change’ and Palestinians paid a heavy price for his reluctance and overall lack of vision and resolve.
Now, however, the initial hopes and expectations that accompanied Obama’s first days in office have been replaced with fear and trepidation as President-elect Trump is fortifying his transitional team. For Palestinians, the signs are ominous. From former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, to Republican leader Newt Gingrich, the Trump team is filling up with dishonourable men who have made careers from pandering to Israeli interests and unabashedly discounting Palestinian rights.
While Gingrich had claimed in 2011 that Palestinians are ‘invented’ people, Giuliani, according to the Jewish News Service, “is fondly remembered in the Jewish community for expelling Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) chief, Yasser Arafat, from a United Nations concert at Lincoln Center in 1995”.
Considering earlier statements made by Trump himself last May — that the expansion of illegal Jewish colonies in the Occupied West Bank “should keep moving forward” — to more recent comments by Trump’s point-person in Israel, Jason Greenblatt, that the illegal colonies are “not an obstacle to peace”, it is fairly certain that the Trump administration is decidedly anti-peace and anti-Palestinians. Israeli officials are, of course, rejoicing at the opportunity of working with such an administration, with Education Minister Naftali Bennet celebrating the “end of a Palestinian state” era and Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman inviting Trump to “coordinate the development” of illegal colonies.
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The media forecast for the next four years in US foreign policy towards Palestine and Israel is also prejudiced. While Trump’s prospective line-up of old politicians is not conducive to the achievement of a just peace in Palestine, suggestions in the news that a thriving, just peace had existed under the Obama administration is both laughable and untrue. The Obama administration, despite the uneasy relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been one of the friendliest and most generous towards Israel. Obama has remained steadfast on Israel’s side as they both fought against Palestinian political aspirations in international institutions.
The appointment of Senator George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, early in Obama’s first term, reaped no fruit as Israel was resolute about not considering any illegal colony-construction freeze. Instead of placing pressure on Israel to relent, Obama’s administration pressured Palestinians to agree to resume peace talks despite colony expansion, in defiance of international law. More pressure was added when Palestinians were expected to submit to the “Jewish identity” of Israel as a precondition to peace, forcing them to cancel their historical claims to Palestine.
That legacy proved a lasting one, as only recently, Obama signed a “landmark agreement” giving Israel $38 billion (Dh139.76 billion) in military funding — the largest aid package in US history.
Things have thus been worse for Palestinians even before Trump’s future presidency.
One of the main fears of a Trump presidency is that he will work to ensure that efforts to bring about an independent Palestinian state will be hampered, if not entirely frozen. In reality, Obama and his predecessors fought tirelessly to prevent a Palestinian state from ever taking form. If a distinction is to emerge between his and Trump’s administrations, it is likely to be manifested in rhetoric, not in action: the former refined and articulate, the latter belligerent and demagogic.
In his last speech before the United Nations, Obama dedicated a single paragraph to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, reflecting his failure to positively affect the outcomes of the Middle East’s most protracting, destabilising conflict. Both sides would “be better off if Palestinians reject incitement and recognise the legitimacy of Israel, but Israel recognises that it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land,” he said.
Over Obama’s eight-year administration, during which thousands of innocent people — the vast majority Palestinians — were killed, Obama sold Palestinian leaders false hope, while granting the Israeli government most of its needs of military funding and technology. On the political front, he ensured the defeat of Palestinian efforts aimed at obtaining recognition for their future state. He went as far as denying Unesco nearly a quarter of its funding, simply for admitting Palestine as a new member.
Yet, naively, some still hope that Obama will seek recognition for the State of Palestine at the UN Security Council in his remaining weeks in office. These hopes have been buoyed by media reports that Obama had instructed the US State Department to develop an “option menu” regarding his vision for a resolution to the conflict. The soon-to-depart president has had eight full years to take advantage of his first-term popularity, to challenge the pro-Israel lobby and present his country as a truly ‘honest broker’ in an unequal conflict. He could have, at least, sided with the majority of humanity by adding his country’s voice to those that recognise a Palestinian state at the United Nations.
History has taught us that, when it comes to US foreign policy towards Palestine, and Israel, things are likely to get worse, not better. Despite the current chasm within American society, among the media and political elites, the American love affair with Israel will continue. The ongoing war on Palestinian rights and aspirations will also linger. Dr Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story.