It is unfortunate that President Barack Obama should now be visiting Israel, the Occupied Territories and Jordan when this week marks the tenth anniversary of the disastrous American war on Iraq, where some 5,000 US soldiers were killed and the US government is still paying about $12 billion (Dh44.13 billion) a year and is expected to continue paying for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for the next century as US service members and their families grapple with the sacrifices of combat. To date, according to a recent study, the Iraq war has cost the US more than $1.7 trillion.
Of course, there is hardly any visible American remorse expressed towards the Iraqi people, who are still in a tinderbox as a result of the ill-fated American intervention during the Bush presidency and Iraq’s growing factional war among various religious sects there.
Additionally, this week marks the 10th anniversary of the death of an admirable American peace activist, Rachel Corrie, a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), who was crushed to death by an Israeli armoured bulldozer in Rafah, in the southern part of the Gaza Strip in a joint effort to non-violently prevent the Israeli army’s demolition of the homes of Palestinian people. Corrie came to Gaza as part of her senior-year college assignment to connect her home town with Rafah in a sister-city programme.
There are low expectations, in the US and Middle East, for the unprecedented visit by the American president, in part because there are no indications that the Israeli government is serious about negotiating a peace agreement with the Palestinians, who, until the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, were in full control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which was about 22 per cent of their original homeland, now known as Israel.
It would have been more logical for Secretary of State John Kerry to be the first to go to Israel and assess the chances for the resumption of Palestinian-Israel peace talks in order to pave the way for an Obama visit. However, the result of the recent Israeli election has diminished the status of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many of his bloc’s candidates lost and he had to look for new partners to join his coalition government. Kerry, who is now accompanying the president, will be going to Israel next week to follow up on whatever was discussed earlier.
Another low-key objective for Obama was to mend his supposedly cool relationship with Netanyahu and other Israelis since his first visit to the Middle East during his first term did not include a stopover in Israel. Whether he will be successful now is too early to tell despite public efforts to assure Israelis that Obama is on their side. Jeffrey Goldberg, described in the Israeli left-leaning newspaper, Haaretz, as “one of the most influential journalists in the United States,” and who had interviewed Obama several times, told the paper: “I think what many Israelis don’t understand is that Obama, from one angle of approach, is probably the most Jewish president the United States has ever had.” Goldberg, who had immigrated to Israel when he was younger and had joined the Israeli army, cited Obama’s relationships with various Jewish groups and was said to have been influenced by reform rabbis and liberal Jewish lawyers in his hometown of Chicago and at Harvard University. “In a certain way,” Goldberg explained, “he could be placed in the spiritual and moral mainstream of American liberal Judaism”.
What has been more confusing about the new Israeli cabinet is that it is a hodge-podge of various political parties. The prime minister, who has avoided discussing the relationship with Palestinians during the election campaign and in negotiations with other party leaders before announcing his new cabinet, suddenly declared in Israel last Wednesday: “We extend our hand in peace to the Palestinians ... Israel will be ready for a historic compromise that will end the conflict with the Palestinians once and for all.” But he will be able to do that with extremist members in his cabinet from both sides of the Knesset is unfathomable. Members of the new cabinet include the Jewish Home Party, which rejects any concessions to Palestinians, and Netanyahu’s diminished bloc, Likud-Yisrael Beitenu, which is also dominated by hardliners. To top it all, Netanyahu’s new defence and health ministers are well-known sympathisers of the illegal Israeli colonists in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem, who now number about 500,000. In an editorial, the Los Angeles Times said last Tuesday that the “chief purpose [of Obama’s visit] seems to be to prove to Israelis that he supports them by visiting the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem and saying the right words at the grave of Zionism’s founding father, Theodor Herzl.”
However, Obama will not be visiting in Ramallah the grave of Yasser Arafat, the founder of Fatah and the second president of the Palestine Liberation Movement, or the Israel-built wall separating Israel from the West Bank. This prompted the paper to observe that “others wonder aloud whether the time for a two-state solution has come and gone”.
In other words, the American president has to tread softly but firmly during his current visit.
George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org