Opinion | Columnists

Will Obama call Israel’s bluff?

Myth of the Jewish lobby has taken a toll on US foreign policy in the Middle East; Romney’s defeat gives the president a chance to set things right

  • By George S. Hishmeh | Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 20:00 November 14, 2012
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Reuters
  • US President Barack Obama acknowledges supporters while at his election night victory rally in Chicago.

It is a well-known truism that American presidents serving a second term have limited time to implement their agenda — somewhere around two years — since a new House of Representatives is elected every two years. This time around, although President Barack Obama was re-elected decisively and the 100-member Senate is still controlled by the Democrats, the Republicans retain the majority in the House of Representatives. Should they maintain the same majority in two years, Obama’s power could be seriously curtailed.

Moreover, Obama has serious national problems on his agenda, mainly the shaky economy which needs immediate fixing. There are other worrisome issues — the tax system, health care, immigration, climate change and upgrading the education system, but this is not all. The president is fully aware that his foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, will underline his legacy. Resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, something his predecessors failed to achieve, will be on his agenda.

Then there is Obama’s vision for a world free from nuclear weapons. A necessary first step would be the reduction, if not elimination of nuclear stockpiles in the possession of many nations including Israel, which still refuses to adhere to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Interestingly, Obama will shortly travel to countries such as Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia as part of a landmark Asia tour. He will attend the East Asia summit and meet with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). This brings to mind his trip to Cairo early in his first term. His speech there gave the Arab world hope that he would seriously pursue a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, but the right-wing regime of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had other ideas. Netanyahu’s government sought to absorb 22 per cent of Palestine — the West Bank, occupied east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. This was buttressed by colony-building in these Arab areas with some 500,000 Israelis taking up residence.

Israel’s colony-building drive continues because western powers, including the US, turn a blind eye to the Israeli occupation. The influence of the American Jewish community and its moneyed members are to be credited for disrupting Obama’s peaceful agenda in the Middle East. But this time around, the influential and powerful American Jewish lobby appeared splintered, certainly not composed of ‘single-issue voters whose support goes to those candidates with the most hawkish views on Israel’.

In an Op-Ed in The New York Times, Jeremy Ben Ami admitted that this “myth has had a hold on American politics for decades, and it’s taken a serious toll on American foreign policy in the Middle East”. Ben Ami is president of J Street which is described as a ‘pro-Israel (and) pro-peace lobby’.

He said: “In particular, fear of political consequences has led US politicians and policymakers to back away from asserting the active leadership needed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” He asserted that “political donors like Sheldon Adelson [a Las Vegas casino mogul] and groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee for Israel spent tens of millions of dollars in 2012 and before to sow fear and doubt over Israel and to move Jewish voters away from President Obama and the Democratic Party”.

But these ‘scare tactics’ did not work. 70 per cent of American Jews voted for Obama, he reported, “in line with the 74 per cent support he received in 2008 and the 70 per cent average support Democratic presidential candidates have received since exit polling began in 1972”.

He explained: “Opponents of the two-state solution understand it won’t happen without strong American leadership and engagement. That’s why [illegal] colonisers on the West Bank and their political allies in Israel and the US use political fear to scare American policymakers out of exercising the leadership needed to help achieve it.”

Ben Ami concluded by urging Obama “to lead the way toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.

Obama should now feel emboldened to try again, considering press reports that Netanyahu is facing an awkward time with Washington, having sided with Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate known for his flip-flop views. He, however, should not do so till January 23 when the Israeli election will decide whether Netanyahu returns to power given that his support is seen to be diminishing daily.

George S.Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at ghishmeh@gulfnews.com.

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