Middle East studies in the News
Obama Breaks His Silence On Gaza [incl. Rashid Khalidi]
Obama told reporters yesterday that "the loss of civilian life in Gaza and Israel is a source of deep concern to me." He added that his incoming administration was going to "hit the ground running" in the search for a peace deal and concluded enigmatically, "after January 20, I am going to have plenty to say about the issue."
That could mean virtually anything. Unfortunately, this issue is one on which even those who are broadly sympathetic to the incoming president – I include myself – must acknowledge that his performance has been conspicuously weak.
Obama's electoral opponents, from Hillary Clinton to John McCain, have often alleged that there is no substance behind the president-elect's charisma and rhetorical brilliance. Most of the time, their attacks have been unfair – witness Obama's consistency on Iraq, for instance, or the myriad specific policy proposals he outlined during the campaign.
But when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, Obama has too often seemed to lack an anchor, instead being dragged increasingly to the right by the prevailing winds of domestic American opinion.
In his early days in Chicago, Obama exhibited at least a degree of open-mindedness about the Palestinian cause. Attending a party to send the Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi on his way from the University of Chicago to New York's Columbia University in 2003, Obama spoke about their friendship, and about mealtime conversations with Khalidi and his wife, Mona.
Their talks had been "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases," he said. "It's for that reason that I'm hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation: a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid's dinner table" but around "this entire world."
The Khalidis held a fundraiser for Obama when he made his unsuccessful bid for a seat in Congress in 2000. The candidate reportedly said at that event that he wanted America to adopt a more "even-handed" approach to the conflict. Yet last year Khalidi told the New York Times: "I'm unhappy about the positions he's taken, but I can't say I'm terribly disappointed. ... People think he's a saint. He's not. He's a politician."
A similar story of disaffection is told by the Chicago-based Palestinian-American writer Ali Abunimah. He has written that during the Democratic primary leading up to Obama's 2004 election to the Senate, the candidate apologised to him for not having been more vocal on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, citing political considerations and adding: "I'm hoping that when things calm down I can be more upfront."
The Obama camp denies that any such exchange took place. But the fact remains that Obama's public statements have shown less and less sympathy for the Palestinian position over time. In 2007, a mini-flap erupted when Obama was reported to have said: "No one has suffered more than the Palestinians." He swiftly moved to crush the controversy, insisting that he had meant that such suffering had been caused by "the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognise Israel, to renounce violence and to get serious about negotiating peace and security for the region."
On the day, last June, after he secured the Democratic party's nomination for the presidency, Obama addressed the pro-Israel lobby group Aipac. He told them what they wanted to hear, asserting: "We know that we cannot relent, we cannot yield and as president I will never compromise when it comes to Israel's security."
Among the other things to which he committed himself were "ensuring Israel's qualitative military advantage" and standing up "for Israeli's right to defend itself in the United Nations" (presumably by continuing to defy UN resolutions).
Obama even went a little too far beyond the pro-Israel American consensus. He asserted that Jerusalem would always remain the capital of Israel "and must remain undivided", in the process appearing to prejudge an issue that is supposed to be left to "final status" negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves.
The most dispiriting element of Obama's stance on the Middle East is that a man who has in so many ways raised the level of political discourse – witness everything from his speech upon winning the Iowa caucuses just over a year ago to the now-famous More Perfect Union address on race last March – seems to have increasingly become prone to over-simplification.
An especially jarring example came during his visit to the southern Israeli city of Sderot last summer. He came close to offering carte blanche to the Israelis, in strikingly emotive terms: "If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that," he said. "And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing." Presumably, he would also be less than thrilled if a foreign nation occupied parts of the US, fired missiles at his daughter's school and killed dozens of people in the process. But he didn't mention that.
Over the course of his exhilarating presidential campaign, Obama showed himself to be possessed of enormous grit, intellectual rigour and political sophistication. It's a shame that the first international crisis he will face is centred upon the one issue on which he has signally failed to bring those qualities to bear.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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