When President Obama came into office eight years ago, friends in Washington said the private message on Palestine was clear. He wanted to do everything that liberal Zionists and the soon-to-be-announced J Street lobby wanted him to do: force Israel to end the settlements and retreat to the Green Line and thus allow the creation of a Palestinian state. Obama was said to have quoted FDR. “You’ve convinced me. Now go out there and make me do it.” I.e., build a movement that will compel me to do this, politically.
That approach was a miserable failure. Two-staters (and I was a wishy-washy one) failed to build such a movement inside the American establishment or more importantly, the Jewish community; J Street was marginalized; there are 100,000+ more settlers today than there were when Obama vowed in Cairo, “It is time for these settlements to stop;” Obama caved to political pressure and did nothing substantive till his last weeks in office, with the heroic abstention at the UN Security Council allowing the condemnation of settlements. For eight years the rightwing Israel lobby and its donors worked inside the Democratic Party to keep Obama from even thinking about putting pressure on Israel. An administration that began right after one massacre (Cast Lead) and quietly witnessed another (Protective Edge, 2014), still gave Israel more American aid than ever, $38 billion over ten years–more than half of all our foreign aid to a country whose GDP per capita is about to top France’s.
Still, I think I will look back on the Obama administration with fondness. Brain scientists say we store memories with two data points, peak and end; and the peak and end were good: The Iran deal, the Security Council abstention. Obama also kept us out of Syria despite huge pressure from the Clintonites. And at the last minute, when he had some autonomy, he freed Chelsea Manning. That UN resolution is likely to have massive negative consequences for Israel’s standing in the world. So Obama gave a big boost to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), and earned all of Netanyahu’s contempt for him.
That’s one achievement of the last eight years on the Israel-Palestine front: the successful internationalization of resistance to occupation and to Zionism. Things are worse in Palestine, but what had been a marginal global movement eight years ago is today a broad one, and about to convulse the Democratic Party and liberal institutions. Obama’s original national base– the Liberal Zionists, his “cabal” of rich Chicago Jewish liberals– is the big loser. The middle ground is vanishing. Increasingly, you are in the Greater Israel camp or in the boycott camp.
The two-state solution is over; and a struggle for equal rights in Israel and Palestine has begun in earnest, and is breaking into the mainstream. (Even Obama said the two-state “moment may be passing,” at his last press conference yesterday.)
People will say this is a leftwing achievement, and not Obama’s; but I give the president some credit. He never really liked Netanyahu. And though he did not resist him outright till the end, he objected on numerous occasions to the Likud agenda. No slideshow of the Obama presidency is complete without a picture of one of the awkward/angry Obama-Netanyahu meetings. Early on, it was said that Obama had read The Israel Lobby by Walt and Mearsheimer. His fights with his own party, in which liberal coastal Democrats savaged the president over his alleged opposition to Israel, and his speech in favor of the Iran Deal saying it would be an “abrogation” of his constitutional duty if he sided with Israel, have highlighted the truth of the Israel lobby theory. By the time they build an Obama library, the smear of the president as an anti-Semite will be a badge of honor.
Why didn’t Obama do more to call out Israel and its supporters and build a new base? I blame the power of the lobby; and yes, too, the deep state that seems to love the militarization of the Middle East. But there was also something characterological at work, Obama’s disinclination to engage with mortals and get down in the political mud. He was great at giving lofty speeches but afraid to put his chips down. A friend of mine who went to law school with Obama said you could see his conciliatory temperament then. At late night bull-sessions, Obama would draw everyone else out on their opinions, but at the end of the night you never really knew where the future president stood.
In years to come, there are sure to be memoirs– and revisions– in which we discover that Obama knew there was apartheid in Palestine and didn’t really believe in a Jewish state. So let the mythologizing begin. Some of it is deserved.