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Obama Inherits Bush Legacy in Israeli Elections


President Barack Obama (WDCpix) and Benjamin Netanyahu (knesset.gov.il)

Among the many sorry gifts George W. Bush passed on to President Barack Obama, the next prime minister of Israel is among the most dubious. This particular present will be gift-wrapped by Israeli voters on Tuesday when they vote for a successor to the indicted and discredited Ehum Olmert whose tenure as chief of the Zionist state has seen two wars but no clear cut victories. The winner will either be Bibi Netanyahu, the former prime minister who is ahead in the polls, or Olmert’s underwhelming foreign minister Tzipi Livni. Neither choice is inspiring.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

With Palestinians, Netanyahu is reliably brutal. As prime minister in the 1990s, he did his best to undermine Israeli compliance with the Oslo accords which, with the help of a Hamas suicide bombing spree, set stage for the failure of President Clinton’s Camp David summit in 2000 and the outbreak of the second intifada. As the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl notes, Netanyahu is known for treating U.S. officials as if they were junior partners in an alliance with the Israeli superpower. Netanyahu now says Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza in which 1,300 people were killed, including 450 women and children, should have gone on for longer. As the European judges debate whether Israeli actions constitute war crimes, Netanyahu promises more.

Livni is reliably vague. She defends Israeli military strategy and the 100-1 ratio of Palestinian to Israel casualties that it generates, while lacking the standing to sell any different policy to Jewish voters. She occasionally mouths the rhetoric of the “peace process” even as the Israeli daily Haaretz reports that her government persists in brazen plans to build 3,5000 housing units set aside for Jews (No Arabs need apply) on the soil of the so-far imaginary Palestinian state. As the Obama administration ponders how to restart serious peace negotiations, Israel pursues plans to make those negotiations impossible.

Tomorrow’s vote will answer one question facing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s State Department: does the Israeli political leadership have ideas for dealing with the Palestinians in their midst other than the application of more violence? Livni offers trickery; Netanyahu is more straightfoward.

The Israeli elections illuminate how eight years of Bush policy has served to radicalize both Israeli and Arab public opinion. Just as the Israeli public has lost faith in the idea of a negotiated settlement, the Palestinian public has gravitated towards Hamas, not out of love for its authoritarian style—the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reports 32 extrajudicial executions in Gaza since the Israeli siege began—but because the group’s armed attacks on Israeli civilians are accepted as legitimate by most Palestinian civilians whose communities have absorbed far worse from Israeli forces. Obama and Clinton cannot admit this reality publicly nor deny it privately.

Bush policy also discredited democratic forces in the region. After touting elections to the Palestinians as a path for peace in 2006, Hamas swept to a parliamentary majority and was immediately rewarded with a secret U.S. policy of undoing the election results. As Vanity Fair revealed last March, the Bush administration secretly armed Palestinian forces seeking to overthrow Hamas. That policy failed and the Arab world received an object lesson that American rhetoric about democracy was untrustworthy. Obama and Clinton can’t unring this bell. Now they have to do something about promoting democracy in the Arab world before they can actually talk about it.

Among Bush’s victims is Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Once upon a time, before 2006 Yasser Arafat’s colorless successor could be seen as a decent man holding out for the arrival of an Israeli partner willing to act on the recognition that Jewish security and Palestinian rights depend on each other. But Abbas’ approach had yielded few visible benefits aside from the sort of police training that impresses the likes of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman but fits into no larger policy of building Palestinian civil society. Abbas was all-but invisible during the Israeli siege, lest he be seen by the constituents as a collaborator in the Zionist incursion. Only a few in Washington can now say what Abbas is president of and fewer care. How the Clinton State Department rehabilitates him is far from clear.

Jimmy Carter has an idea. Stop obstructing Abbas from forming national unity government with Hamas. With characteristic bluntness, the former U.S. president told aljazeera.net that reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the faction led by Abbas has been “objected to and obstructed by the [United States] and Israel. ” Leaving aside Carter’s political radioactivity in Washington, bolstering Abbas would require recognizing the reality of Hamas’ political role, so that’s probably a non-starter even if it might make a negotiated settlement more likely.

Another dismal legacy of the Bush policy lies outside of Israel’s borders, where Arab democratic forces yearn for real, not rhetorical support from Washington, and get unconvincing lectures about how Hamas’s war crimes justify Israeli war crimes. In democratizing Iraq, the daily Azzaman described Gaza as “the fourth devastating war waged by the U.S. or its ally Israel against Arabs and Muslims in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks – Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.”

In Turkey, a country whose government is allied with the United States and where Israelis often vacation, President Raul Erdogan enjoyed a big boost in popularity at home and abroad by denouncing the Gaza war, according to the London pan-Arab daily Asharq Alawsat. Beirut’s Daily Star, a democratic secular daily that speaks out against Syrian domination of Lebanon and the excesses of Hezbollah, calls Israeli policy “a big lie” based on hitting its foes “so hard and so fast that they will be irrecoverably crippled and will forever cringe in fear ….** **The strategy has been deployed in one form or another since even before 1948, but it has so far only won Israel stronger and more dangerous enemies.

And these are our friends talking. Obama’s appeal to the Muslim world in his inaugural address and his interview with Al-Arabiya were intended to signal a new U.S. policy is coming. Shorn of options and allies, the Obama administration has little choice but to pursue real change in U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But change is the one option that Israel’s voters and their new leader want to keep off the table. One question is how Obama and Clinton will try to escape the traps set by Bush policy. Another question is whether they want to.

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