George S. Hishmeh
Gulf News (Opinion)
August 18, 2011 - 12:00am

There were great expectations when Barack Obama first walked into the White House, both in the US and in the Arab world, if not everywhere. His appearance shortly thereafter in Cairo raised hopes and most Arabs thought he would usher in some genuine evenhandedness, something his predecessors had failed to do.

This was certainly true of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and regretfully, the American position has not improved an inch.

Of course, we can certainly blame the pro-Israel lobby; there is no dispute about that. Many American leaders, however, were not as aware of foreign policy issues, especially in the Middle East, as Obama who was exposed to divisive issues in the Arab world during his senatorial term in Chicago, the seat of some excellent universities focusing on the Middle East.

Yet he could not deliver and continues to show reluctance to be firm although he once again this week "reaffirmed the long-term commitment of the US to the region's peace and security".

Take for example the issue with Hamas, the controversial Palestinian Islamist group which has been labelled a terrorist organisation by the US. Obama's administration was indignant that Hamas, now in virtual control of the Israeli-besieged Gaza Strip, wanted to audit the financial records of several international aid groups operating there — a logical step that any organisation should expect from a local government.

But the US threatened to withdraw its $100 million donated to these organisations operating in the impoverished strip on the east Mediterranean if Hamas insisted on proceedings with the audit. Ultimately, Hamas backed away this week and the US restored its financing.

Double standards

On the other hand, Israel has never been treated as harshly or swiftly despite the projected construction of more illegal housing units in the Occupied Territories. In three separate announcements this month, Israel has approved the building of some 2,000 new housing units there — in Ariel, itself an illegal colony that cuts deeply into the Occupied Territories, the Ramat Shlomo colony in occupied east Jerusalem which the Palestinians hope would be their future capital, and in Har Homa, another colony in occupied east Jerusalem that is adjacent to Bethlehem.

But all the Obama administration did in response was to issue a mild State Department statement saying that such unilateral action "undercuts trust" and works against US efforts to resume peace negotiations.

In contrast, a spokesman for Peace Now, an anti-colony Israeli advocacy group, called the Ariel project "a very negative move that shows the Israeli government has no intention to speak to the Palestinians but wanted to confront them and the international community." Regrettably, none of the $3 billion that the US showers Israel with on the first day of the US fiscal year has been withheld pending Israel's compliance with international law that forbids colony-building in Occupied Territories.

Is it possible that American leaders (or their staff) did not know that both the United Nations and the International Court of Justice have declared that Israel's colonies are clear violations of established international law?

To add insult to injury, 81 US congressmen are on week-long trips to Israel this month as guests of the American Education Foundation, a charity affiliated with the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

A Washington Post reporter noted that "having roughly one-fifth of the House [of Representatives] visiting the region is particularly striking when the relationship between Obama and [Israeli] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is strained."

The legislators included 26 Democrats and 55 Republicans.

A visiting Republican congressman from New York, Michael Grimm, was quoted as saying unabashedly: "It's my responsibility to be able to advocate on pro-Israel issues," adding in a telephone interview with the Post that "coming here and being able to feel it and touch it to fully understand how daily life is for an Israeli is important." This one-sidedness was evident despite criticism from a variety of groups, according to the Post, that felt that "members ought to be attending only to domestic affairs right now," considering the serious financial crisis .

No wonder the Palestinians have no alternative but to go to the UN to gain statehood, despite the objection of Israel and the United States — yes, the United States!

"We have put forward our democracy as a model for the rest of the world to follow," wrote Henry Siegman, a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in The National Interest this week. "But in seeking to bludgeon [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas into foregoing the United Nations and returning to predictably futile negotiations with [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu, the US is placing its diplomatic leverage at the service of Israeli policies aimed at preventing Palestinian democratic self-determination.

"That is how the world will see it, no matter how the administration will try to rationalise its actions at the UN in September."


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