Much has been said about the change promised by Barack Obama prior to his election, and the depressing continuity between his administration and those of Bush and Clinton. During the drawn-out months of his election campaign, there were even some rumblings in right-wing media circles that an Obama presidency would not be “sufficiently” pro-Israel. Comparisons were drawn with Jimmy Carter’s supposedly pro-Palestinian administration, while a false controversy was manufactured in Obama’s friendship with the moderate, and indeed quite uncontroversial, Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi. It is clear, however, that even prior to November 2008, Obama was never going to buck the trend when it came to Washington’s long-term “special relationship” with Israel.
This was demonstrated at a public meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in June 2008. Obama told the unapologetically right-wing lobby group that he was “a true friend of Israel” and felt “among friends” with AIPAC. He also reiterated that, “the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable today, tomorrow and forever,” and in fact “as president, I will work with you to ensure that this bond is strengthened.” Similarly, a month later, on a visit to Israel itself, Obama announced that "the most important thing for me to share is the historic and special relationship between the United States and Israel, one that cannot be broken…one that I have affirmed throughout my career and one that I will intend to not only continue but strengthen." Shmuel Rosner, a conservative columnist for the Israeli Ha’aretz newspaper proudly declared Obama to be “as strong as Clinton, as supportive as Bush, as friendly as Giuliani. At least rhetorically, Obama passed any test anyone might have wanted him to pass. So, he is pro-Israel. Period.” And so, since taking office a year ago, Obama has pursued a pro-Israel policy that has been remarkable only in how unremarkably similar it has been to the policies of Clinton and Bush.
This prompts the deeper question of why exactly successive American regimes have remained so unabashedly pro-Israel? A common answer is to accuse lobby groups such as AIPAC of dictating Washington’s foreign policy. But this is to overestimate the power of lobby groups as well as to underestimate the influence of imperial self-interest in American foreign policy. The sad truth is that Washington continues to be pro-Israel, not because of AIPAC hoodwinking, but because supporting Israel is perceived as beneficial for American elite interests. This is the relationship that Obama inherited and it is one he has little interest in relinquishing, reforming, or redirecting.
The human cost of this, though, is shocking. In the most recent Israeli assault on Gaza last January, approximately 1,300 Palestinians were killed, against 13 Israelis (Reuters, 1/12/09). More than 400,000 Gazans were left without running water, 4,000 homes were destroyed or badly damaged and tens of thousands of people became homeless (BBC News, 1/19/09). Yet throughout the entire military offensive, Obama remained notably silent, citing a supposed custom against the president-elect commenting on politics prior to inauguration. Since then, however, he has all but condoned Israel’s actions. He dismissed the UN report into the war as being allegedly one-sided and biased; his Democrat-dominated Congress later voted to dismiss the report’s findings.
And so the abject misery of Gaza continues. With an area of 132 square miles and a population of 1.5m, Gaza is the most densely populated area on Earth. It is also one of the poorest. Prior to the Israeli blockade, which began in 2005, 18% of infants suffered from chronic malnutrition, while 53% of women of reproductive age and 44% of children were found to be anaemic. This is a situation that has since deteriorated rapidly, both due to the harsh Israeli blockade that has almost completely cut-off Gaza from outside assistance or humanitarian aid, and the January 2009 invasion.
Attempts to break the siege, such as breaching the barriers between Gaza and Egypt or building tunnels into Egypt have often been met with brute violence, by both the Israeli and Egyptian regimes, now two of the closest allies of the Obama regime in the region. In the West Bank, life is supposedly better, under the premiership of Fatah’s Salam Fayyad. Thomas Friedman, the prominent pro-Israel columnist for the New York Times, has even seen fit to speak of “Fayyadism” and “Green Shoots in Palestine.” In reality Fayyad, a former World Bank economist, is overseeing a policy of neo-liberalisation that is already leading to yawning gaps between rich and poor in Palestine. In Ramallah Yves Saint Laurent clothing stores and Starbucks-style coffee shops are springing up next to the refugee camps and UN aid missions. And it is precisely this deepening poverty that is so effectively exploited by Hamas.
And the policies currently pursued by the Israeli state are not all that different. On paper, Israel has a strong economy, one of the best in Asia, with a supposed average wage of close to $32,000. In reality, the Reaganite economic policies of the ruling Likud coalition have decimated living standards. The five hundred wealthiest Israelis have an estimated combined fortune of $26 billion and Israel has the largest number of NASDAQ-listed companies outside North America. Yet state-employed schoolteachers earn as little as $1700 a month, unemployment has stagnated continuously at about ten percent for some years and twenty percent of the population live in a state of poverty (defined as income of less than $600 a month). These are figures that worsen yearly. Reactionary parties, such as SHAS (The Worldwide Sephardic Association of Torah Keepers), ruthlessly exploit this poverty. However, like their counterparts in Hamas, such parties have no concrete solutions for economic misery other than to enflame religious and national hatred, while still pursuing the same neo-liberal policies as their opponents.
Despite the great hopes invested in him, the changes needed to build peace in Israel-Palestine are not changes Obama is willing to bring about. As shown by his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, the more things change with Obama, the more they remain exactly the same. The Democrats are now pursuing the same foreign policy goals of the Republicans since the Democrats ultimately represent the same big business and neo-imperialist interests, albeit with a slightly more humane veneer. It’s the politics of Coke and Pepsi. There are solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict but a party so in thrall to capitalism and the crude pursuit of power won’t bring them about.