George S. Hishmeh
Gulf News (Opinion)
August 11, 2011 - 12:00am

There is no doubt that US President Barack Obama's plate is full considering the overpowering financial crisis which has led to the downgrading of the US credit rating and its devastating worldwide ripple effect. But whether he can overcome the shock of another international hurdle, namely the Palestinians' drive for UN membership next month, depends on his calculations.

And considering the shrinking influence of the pro-Israel lobby, it is widely believed that Obama is marking time. He obviously hopes that he can withstand the arm-twisting that has been effective previously, especially after his first uplifting visit to Cairo shortly after his inauguration.

Now, he is rumoured to be planning a trip to Israel in the hope of assuring the right-wing Israeli leadership there of his continued security commitment to the embattled state established in the Occupied Territories.

One wonders, however, whether Obama, who won 80 per cent of the American Jewish vote in his first-term election to the presidency (and may still do so), realises that more diverse opinions are now being expressed in this respect, allowing all Americans to stand up and be counted.

Nicholas D. Kristof, the prominent New York Times columnist, has spoken candidly in his column last week. He recalled quite blatantly that when he writes about Israel, "I get accused of double standards because I don't spill as much ink denouncing worse abuses by, say, Syria."

He explained: "I demand more of Israel partly because my tax dollars supply arms and aid to Israel. I hold democratic allies like Israel to a higher standard — just as I do the US." He continued, "With the Arab Spring, the US has a chance for a new beginning in the region. But that will require Washington to adopt a more balanced policy."

Growing challenge

What has been more engaging nowadays is the "sinking image" of Israel, particularly in the wake of the social and economic turmoil there, and the growing challenge that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing cabinet, has been facing internally and externally.

For example, the Israel daily Haaretz has blatantly urged the prime minister to distance himself from his extremist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. The reason has been Lieberman's suggestion that Israel should sever all ties with the Palestinian National Authority, claiming unsubstantially that it "is getting ready for bloodshed on a scale we haven't yet seen" when the Palestinians are scheduled to seek UN membership next month.

The paper could have done better had it called for the resignation of the prime minister who has been facing an expanding social and economic protest, in the style of the Arab Spring, and sharp criticism of continued occupation of Palestinian territory.

In turn, Tzipi Livni, leader of the Kadima Party, the largest opposition party in the Knesset, complained ferociously to the Atlantic monthly in an exclusive interview that Netanyahu wants to turn Israel into a "Jewish ghetto," worrying that American Jews are disturbed by Israel's new world image. She underlined that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "is usually the picture of Israeli soldiers and the Palestinian child, the tank versus the stone".

Referring to the sharp exchanges between Obama and Netanyahu earlier this year she said this was a "nightmare", Netanyahu put American Jews "in a very complicated situation", she went on, compelling them to choose sides "and they don't want to be in this situation".

The former foreign minister backed Obama's action in compelling Netanyahu to endorse a two-state solution, acknowledged that this was a service to Israel. "When Obama pushed Bibi, Bibi made some steps forward," she underlined.

Will all this help pave the way for Obama to exercise more pressure on Netanyahu, or will he remain committed to the reported warning that he would cut all US aid to the Palestinians should they refuse to abandon their drive for UN membership?

If Obama needs more ammunition to be fair, he can point to a new serious Israeli violation. Earlier this month, final Israeli approval was given for the construction of 930 new homes in occupied east Jerusalem, thereby cutting off the nearby Palestinian town of Bethlehem from other Arab areas in occupied east Jerusalem.

This expansion within the illegal colony of Har Homa, one of the largest in occupied east Jerusalem, was seen as "a cynical exploitation of Israel's housing shortage".

A leader of Israeli Peace Now, Hagit Ofran, said the approval would make a two-state solution "ever more difficult," as it is one of the biggest issues preventing the resumption of peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017