President Obama’s historic opening to Cuba yesterday made many of us think about the long cold war against the Palestinian people. In both cases, a policy of isolating a people because they have political views our government disagrees with has gone on for decades without changing that society. The world wants us to bend. But a powerful domestic lobby has enforced the U.S. policy, even as many murmur about it being at odds with the national interest.
So Obama’s eloquent announcement gives everyone who toils in Palestinian solidarity hope. He began with a declaration of change, “Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.” He spoke of colonialism, and echoed the Cuban narrative. He faulted his predecessors without naming them, and put together a powerful coalition of political actors on his side– Republican and Democratic senators and most important, the Pope. In the end, Obama did not give a fig about the Cuba lobby. He calculated that he could break it because the old think one way but the young are looking forward; and he acted forcefully and used the drama of the prisoner release and the Raoul Castro telephone call to lead Americans away from a crazy policy.
Yesterday we all got to imagine the Pope providing political cover to the president by hosting Palestinian leaders. We got to imagine Congress shifting in response to American public opinion. We got to imagine our president showing leadership and acting in defiance of the lobby. We got to imagine Marwan Barghouti leaving an Israeli prison lean and gray, with a tooth or two missing, but ready to serve.
The pity is that Obama imagined all that too, six years ago. His opening to Palestine and the Arab world took place before his opening to Cuba, because Palestine and the Arab world are more important. He understood that our awful policy on Palestine was endangering Americans and throttling foreign policy in the Middle East, and he gave his first interview to Al Arabiya in 2009 and made that trip to Cairo in June 2009 and in a policy called, “A New Beginning,” said the settlements must end. He put Palestine ahead of Cuba.
And he got crushed for it, by the domestic lobby. Obama’s first-year initiative on Israel and Palestine was the equivalent of Hillary’s healthcare bill. It was the obvious and biggest priority, but she didn’t know how to do it. Obama didn’t know how strong the lobby was and how wily Israel is. By early 2011 he had backtracked completely on the declaration that the settlements must end, and vetoed a UN Security Council resolution saying just that. He accepted lectures from Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House, so that he could make things right with Alan Dershowitz and Haim Saban and Penny Pritzker and other gatekeepers of the lobby and so get a second term. At the Democratic Convention his political henchmen put down a floor demonstration on behalf of Palestinian rights to Jerusalem. He did it because he believed he had to, politically.
The two main differences between Obama’s move on Cuba and his move on Palestine are: the strengths of the two lobbies, and mature leadership in the Cuba case as opposed to cowardice in the Israeli one.
Yesterday the rightwing Cuba lobby was shrieking on the American cable networks, but the pushback was just as strong. NY Rep. Charles Rangel said that Florida Senator Marco Rubio was too emotional about Cuba because his parents left the place– “It’s not going to be him with his emotional connection… who decides this.” Others also implicitly dismissed the older Cuban generation’s feelings about the country as emotional. One CNN commentator said that the older Cuban Americans “feel a lot of personal pain.” The suggestion was, Don’t blackmail the president because of your ethnic/historical issues. Obama leaped without knowing how much support he will have; but it seems inevitable that as he builds political consensus on the people’s interests, all but the hard core will fall into line behind him.
The ethnic-historical issues of the Israel lobby are not nearly so easily dismissed. The Holocaust, which haunts western policy on establishing a Jewish state, is much bigger than the Cuban revolution. At yesterday’s Hanukkah celebration in the White House, the president welcomed Bronfman fellows from Israel– emissaries of a religious state. And American Jews don’t just hang out on Calle Ocho in Little Havana in Miami. We are all over the Establishment, and the emotional connections to Israel on the part of many of these folks is strong. Wolf Blitzer can be detached and appreciative about the Cuba opening. But he once worked for AIPAC, the big Israel lobby, and is still inscribed with pro-Israeli propaganda. Remember him in the tunnels outside Gaza last summer? Alan Dershowitz just wrote a book about the tunnels. He’s an Israel propagandist; and he was on CNN last night.
Yet, the lobby is weakening. The same generational issues that affect Cuban politics affect the lobby’s strength. Younger Jews aren’t drinking the Koolaid, non-Zionist groups are organizing and gaining numbers, principally Jewish Voice for Peace.
That’s where presidential leadership comes in. Obama acted yesterday to nail down a phrase in the second paragraph of his obituary: he made a historic opening on Cuba, after five decades of failed policy. He could solidify that foreign policy legacy by speaking unilaterally on Israel and Palestine, acknowledging decades of failed policy, and saying that it is time to start talking about one person, one vote for all living between the river and the sea.
It’s not going to happen in this administration, but the Cuba announcement brings that day closer. The best thing about yesterday’s news from the Israel-Palestine standpoint was that Obama cleared away an imperial anachronism. He opened the window and let in the air; in era of growing globalization, he signaled respect for a foreign people, no matter their views. The embargo of the revolution makes no more sense than the blockade of Hamas. The other big story of the day– the Sony North Korea hacking– had a similar lesson. As of this week, no US movie studio will embark again on an assassination movie about a foreign country by name. (Doesn’t the decision to make that movie about an actual foreign leader look arrogant in retrospect?)
If Cuba deserves freedom, so does Palestine. Imagine our president addressing the fraught history of Israel/Palestine conflict with the same respect for Palestinians that Obama showed to Cubans yesterday.
“Today, I am being honest with you. We can never erase the history between us, but we believe that you should be empowered to live with dignity and self-determination.”
Imagine our president beginning a speech with a powerful declaration of change: “Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Israel and Palestine.”