President Obama, Please be Different

The initial euphoria over the election of Barack Obama as the United States’ 44th president is starting to wear off, at least in Palestine. This is not to say that Obama isn’t exceptional. He is. He is intelligent, eloquent and has proven that he is a man who understands the hardships of the average person and who has a good grasp of the many ills of this world.

However, right now, the question is whether Obama, with all of his good intentions, will be able to put his foot down to Israel and call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu out. Because frankly, the situation is getting just a bit ridiculous.

Everyone praised President Obama at the start of his term in office when he dove, head first into the murky waters of the Middle East conflict. He pressed a few panic buttons in Israel for sure during his policy speech on the region in June. He mentioned Palestinian refugees, he mentioned a Palestinian state and the suffering of our people over the past 60 years. For an American president, that’s a lot and we all acknowledged this. Then he went one step further and demanded Israel halt all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which his own government even considers illegal. Of course, the new president was met with some tough luck when Netanyahu was elected to form Israel’s government, comprised mainly of right-wing Zionists, but he seemed not to be deterred. "Settlements must stop," he insisted, and we all applauded.

Obama still says the same thing but for some reason, the words have lost their oomph. As expected, Israel has milked the subject for all it’s worth, nagging and whining over every little detail. No halt, just a freeze and a temporary one at that, and only if the Arab states promise normalization steps and only if it excludes Jerusalem and, and, and.

Now, Netanyahu is backtracking even on that. In what can only be considered a slap in Obama’s face, the Israeli premier announced last week that 500 new houses would be constructed in West Bank settlements before he would agree to any temporary freeze in construction. That is, of course, in addition to the 2,500 houses already under construction, which he previously said he would not halt.

What’s more, Israel has continued to insist that Arab countries hold up their end of the bargain, so to speak. The crux of Obama’s plan is to get Israel to agree to halt settlements in exchange for steps towards normalization with Israel from Arab states. Even after Netanyahu made his announcement about further settlement construction, reports have been circulating in the media about Arab states promising ties with Israel including granting Israeli businessmen visas and allowing Israel to open offices in their countries.

Until now, no details have been made available as to which countries are acquiescing to Israel’s demand. However, once again, the lopsided pressure has placed Israel back on top of the game. Instead of Israel being treated like the violator it is in terms of its constant breach of international law, it is being allowed to bend the laws backwards, upside down and every which way with impunity. Not only this, Israel is holding it over everyone’s head that it has lived up to its end of the bargain. "We’ve done our part," an associate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s said on September 6. "We decided to make an effort to facilitate the diplomatic process, but now we want to see that we will also get something in exchange."

Funny, how what Israel calls a "diplomatic effort" is illegal settlement expansion to everyone else. Frankly speaking, even a freeze of settlement construction is a joke, especially since it is temporary. The 500 new houses slated for construction are in key areas which Israel knows will severely hamper any future establishment of a viable Palestinian state, including in the E-1 area that severs the West Bank from Jerusalem.

This is where President Obama can really make a difference. From the many statements coming out of the White House and State Department on the subject of Israel’s settlements, it is clear that Mr. Obama understands the illegal and illegitimate nature of these structures. The most recent Israeli announcement to continue construction was met with a clear "unacceptable" from America. Obama certainly does not need any cramming sessions to educate him on the matter, unlike other former presidents. He knows what needs to be done. Having said this, it will be that much more disappointing if he doesn’t do it. Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell is due to arrive in the country for talks with both Israelis and Palestinians on September 9, ostensibly to hammer out any final details before a prospective meeting of the three on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly later this month to announce the restart of talks.

This is Obama’s window of opportunity to dictate to Israel for once rather than the other way around. A few hundred more settlement homes or a six month freeze on construction just doesn’t cut it and Obama should make that clear. If Israel expects to continue being the US’s biggest recipient of foreign aid, it should also expect to play by its rules. That is how the US disburses its money to other countries including the Palestinians. Foreign aid to Palestine is contingent upon a slew of conditions as we all know, one which has been the refusal to deal with a Hamas-led government. So, the US can minimize its aid to a trickle when it wants to –” we have seen that right here. But will it ever do it to Israel? Probably not. But President Obama has that opportunity to really pressure Israel in the areas where international law is on his side. With the issue of settlements (east Jerusalem included), there are no gray areas, even with the Americans. They are illegal, illegitimate structures that hinder any prospects of real peace. Past US Presidents most likely knew this but did not have the courage or the political will to change the status quo. Because Barack Obama is so unique and has shown that he is not your usual run-of-the-mill man, our hope is that for Palestine, he will really make a difference.