Rabbibrian's Blog

A Voice for Justice and Peace in Israel/Palestine

“Barack Obama’s America is not delivering the goods”

Posted by rabbibrian on August 23, 2009

Gideon Levy, one of the moral heroes of Israel, recently published a challenging article in Haaretz, entitled, “Obama’s America is not delivering the goods.” Levy argues that the great hope that Obama would provide the leadership for a Middle East Peace is “on its deathbed!”

Here are some of his words:

With great sorrow and deep consternation, we hereby declare the death of the latest hope. Perhaps rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase the famous quote by Mark Twain, but the fears are being validated day after day.  Barack Obama’s America is not delivering the goods. Sharing a glass of beer with a racist cop and a pat on the back of Hugo Chavez are not what we hoped for; wholesale negotiations on freezing settlement construction are also not what we expected. Just over six months after the most promising president of all began his term, perhaps hope has a last breath left, but it is on its deathbed.

He came into office amid much hoopla. The Cairo speech ignited half the globe. Making settlements the top priority gave rise to the hope that, finally, a statesman is sitting in the White House who understands that the root of all evil is the occupation, and that the root of the occupation’s evil is the settlements. From Cairo, it seemed possible to take off. The sky was the limit.

Then the administration fell into the trap set by Israel and is showing no signs of recovery.

A settlement freeze, something that should have been understood by a prime minister who speaks with such bluster about two states – a peripheral matter that Israel committed to in the road map – has suddenly turned into a central issue. Special envoy George Mitchell is wasting his time and prestige with petty haggling. A half-year freeze or a full year? What about the 2,500 apartment units already under construction? And what about natural growth? And kindergartens?
Perhaps they will reach a compromise and agree on nine months, not including natural growth though allowing completion of apartments already under construction. A grand accomplishment.

Jerusalem has imposed its will on Washington.  Once again we are at the starting point – dealing with trifles from which it is impossible to make the big leap over the great divide.”

Levy’s words were shocking to me, but they resonated with a deepening sense that he is right.  Obama has fallen into a trap set by the Israeli government that has allowed Israel to ignore the American demand for a settlement freeze and to control the terms of the debate.  Instead of insisting on a settlement freeze – “not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions” –  as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said, Obama has been drawn into haggling with Israel about outposts, natural growth and other issues.   The Israeli government has managed to tie the issue of settlements to the issue of Arab recognition of Israel, a strategy that not only enables them to avoid compliance with the American demand but also gives them time to continue creating facts on the ground.  And this they have done.

While Mitchell and other members of the Administration are haggling behind closed doors with the Israelis about the terms of a settlement freeze, the Israeli government continues building settlements and expelled Palestinian homeowners in Sheikh Jarah,  a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, replacing them with Israeli right wing settlers.   The expulsion in Jerusalem is financed and supported by right wing Americans.   It was a cynical and brilliant move, one that Obama was unable to prevent.  It shifted the debate about settlements to the right of the Jewish People to rule over  Jerusalem.   In my next post I will address this issue of Sheikh Jarah that Sara Kreimer, wrote in Haaretz on Friday.

I read Levy’s article on the same day that the New York Times reported that Obama was not firmly committed to  a public option as part of Health Care Reform.   Maybe Obama’s problem in the Middle East, is related to his problem in the health care debate.  Obama has made bi-partisanship and compromise, his overriding value.   On health care bi-partisanship and compromise has  jeopardized the possibility of a meaningful health care reform.  It has not brought him any substantial support from the Republicans.   Obama’s commitment to seek common ground has made it impossible for him to counter the power of the  Health insurance lobby, the banking and financial industry,  and the Israel Lobby.  In terms of Israel, Obama has made concession after concession.

Strong American pressure on Israel is essential  for Middle East Peace.  Unfortunately the peace movement in Israel, in as much as such a thing even exists, is minute and only supported by a very small minority of Israelis.  There are many wonderful Israeli human rights and peace organizations but there is no organized peace movement.  It is possible that if Israel is forced to give up the settlements, the majority of Israelis will support this move but Israel will never give up all the economic and political benefits of the occupation without pressure.  Maybe Obama thinks he can get a freeze on settlements by consensus.  As a result,  “Jerusalem has imposed its will on Washington”.

I  hope that Levy is wrong.   Those of us who supported Obama precisely because he offered a moral vision of transformation must urge Obama to exert strong pressure to end the settlements.  A freeze on settlements is essential for peace.  As people who care deeply about peace in the Middle East, we need to challenge Obama and to build a movement of American citizens dedicated to a moral and evenhanded American policy that supports justice and security for Israelis and Palestinians.


38 Responses to ““Barack Obama’s America is not delivering the goods””

  1. Liz said

    Dear Brian,
    I would go even further. It is not just that Obama overvalues bi-partisanship and compromise. His politics have always been centrist/moderate/un-radical. As a candidate his articulation of justice and peace agendas were always “soft.” In addition, the overall Democratic congressional response on health insurance reform, which you cite in connection to impact of lobbying, has been scandalously weak. (Side-bar: On the one hand, it was a dramatic historic moment, hearing a US president speak directly to liberal American rabbis on a targeted health-isurance-reform phone call earlier this week; however, he began his talk by veering from the topic, and issuing standard-issue reassurances of the government’s pro-Israel, pro-secure borders, two-state solution talking points, which I found terribly un-reassuring and disappointing.) I don’t believe he wants radical change in either agenda. Your anaysis may also be correct; it is certainly always the case that the agenda-setters, by definition, get the upper hand, as we see in the massive amounts of energy needed to counter the ludicrous and inflammatory rhetoric of the health “care” debate.
    My own passions at the moment are torn (as you can tell) between this critical domestic issue and the situation/s in the Middle East. They are linked by global economics, however. The efforts to re/build a healthy Palestinian economy and infrastructures are critical, along with vigorous calls from Israeli and American Jews for an immediate settlement freeze.
    You have my ongoing support for voicing these question, and your perspective, with such passion and clarity.
    Todah rabbah,

    • rabbibrian said

      Thanks so much Liz for your thoughtful and incisive response. I think that although Obama’s politics may always been centrist or moderate, he is a very decent man with an inspiring moral vision. His speech on race during the campaign and his Cairo speech were expressions of this. I think on health care and Israel he wants the same result that we do, but he is engaging in the politics of the possible. The problem is that he hasn’t been tough enough on either issue. He hasn’t clearly articulated any bottom lines on either issue. I believe we need both to support him and to challenge him to articulate a moral vision with clear bottom lines: public option, freeze on settlements. A health care reform without a public option and a resolution in the Middle East that does not start with a complete settlement freeze will fail. In the first case the beneficiaries will be the health insurance industry; in the second the settler movement. The losers will be the majority of Americans and Israelis.

  2. A Geo-Confederation Proposal for Israel/Palestine

    FYI to Rabbi Brian Walt, I share your “Obama pain.” Here is another approach to Israel/Palestine conflict that is also applicable to other areas of strife over land rights.

    “Geo-confederation” is a way for different ethnic groups to coexist as separate while sharing a coterminus territory. A confederate association of separate but equal states would not interfere in the internal activities of the states. But there is a need for well-defined duties and obligations of a third governmental body – perhaps call it the Confederal Agency of Israel/Palestine – that can deal with defense and foreign affairs, enforceable law for conflicts that cannot be resolved within the two states, and public finance based on fair share rights to land and natural resources.

    Professor Neili states: “The issue of fair taxation and use of taxes paid may seem problematic but is not-we have all sorts of different tax arrangements around the world to achieve fairness for people who live in one state and work in another.” I beg to differ. The world has few examples of fair taxation. An important third function of the Confederal Agency would deal with taxation policy based on an equitable sharing of land rent, also called “land value capture”, recommended by consensus of all UN member states. Land value capture would be an especially elegant basis for public finance for Israel/Palestine because it presents a fair and equitable solution to the ancient land problem.

    The Confederal Agency would be in charge of annual land value assessments and collection of land rent – with no taxes on labor and production – and these funds would be equitably distributed for the benefit of everyone in the Confederation. This would be similar to a property tax, except that it would exempt all personal property, buildings, and improvements to land.

    Those who wish to possess and directly use land would have the responsibility to pay rent into the common resource rent fund of the Confederal Agency. Each resident would be entitled to an equal share of land rent, either as provided by government provided services or as direct citizen dividends or a combination of the two to be decided upon by discussion and vote of all residents of the Confederation. In this way the claims of Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinian Arabs (and Bedouins) to the entire territory can be met by an equitable distribution of land rent to all residents of the Confederation.

    Those who could best utilize land would be able to pay the most land rent back to all residents of the Confederation. The dynamics of this social synergy creates a “win-win” land tenure system. The Confederation would also establish rent collection authorities for water use and for all other natural resources as well, further building a fair economy based on equal rights to the gifts of nature.

    For more enroll in Land Rights and Land Value Capture online course: http://www.course.earthrights.net; read “Peace through Confederal Democracy and Economic Justice” by Fred Foldvary; and The Earth Belongs to Everyone, a book by Alanna Hartzok.

  3. Louis Frankenthaler said

    We can say that in the Occupation, the Israeli establishment has mastered the art of Koshering Pork…

    The Israeli Government is playing the game their way, with their rules and on their field. This field is the field of Occupation the rules are that everything goes when it comes to preserving the Occupation. The ongoing breaking down of Palestinian civil society, civil structure and Palestinian human security is clearly performed in every violent act of the Occupation, be it the Court sanctioned displacement of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem or the ongoing double speak of conflating “illegal outposts” with what then must be ‘legal’ settlements as if any building for Israeli purposes could be legal over the Green line… No, in front of our eyes, for years and continuing to this very day… the Israeli Government, most skillfully by Netanyahu, has been koshering the pork of the Occupation, the cheeseburgers of the settlements and the shell fish of the Occupation wall… and under cover of the the grand Mashgiach, the US Government and a large portion of US Jewry which has financially and morally supported these efforts.

    • rabbibrian said

      Yishar Kochecha (Well Done), Louis. I like the kashrut analogy. The Occupation is treyf and the sooner it ends the better for all Jews, for Israel and of course for Palestinians.

      Thanks for the creative metaphor.

  4. Stephanie Schamess said

    The combination of Levy’s analysis and your commentary is depressing but very compelling. I agree that Obama’s initial strong stand about what Israel needed to do has gotten watered down, and not helped by the fact that much of the overall political capital that Obama had has dissipated in the health care reform debacle. I hope the J Street conference will address and come to grips with what we, as a liberal Jewish constituency, can do to push Obama back to his initial vision for Middle East peace, and move the terms of the debate away from Israel’s control. In today’s Haaretz there is a piece by Levy on the future of Israeli politics which is grim indeed. The battle is an uphill one all the way.

    • rabbibrian said

      Thanks, Stephanie.

      I share the same hope for the J Street conference but many folk in the progressive Jewish camp are reluctant to challenge Obama in any way.

  5. Dear Rabbi Brian,
    I share the concerns expressed in your piece and that of Gideon Levy. But I fear that much political discussion, particularly in and about Israel, tends to be overheated, responding in galactic terms to every tactical feint and nuance. You and G. Levy may turn out to be correct. But I think it is still a bit premature to draw such large conclusions. It is still not clear to me whether bipartisanship is a be-all and end-all to Obama, or rather, as I hope, a shrewd tactical move to try first to bring us together, and then to be able to claim the high ground if and when it becomes necessary to go it alone. This was his path on the stimulus legislation; it may yet be on health care, although I am troubled by his seeming willingness to give away a strong public option. While the issue with Israel is not bipartisanship with Republicans, I think there are significant parallels. It could still go either way; I don’t think it is in Obama’s interest to be seen as completely insensitive to Israel’s concerns, and it doesn’t bother me too much if Mitchell wastes a bit of time to prepare the ground for Obama to make–and to enforce– strong demands on both sides.
    I’m still hoping this is a velvet glove over iron fist strategy by Obama–I don’t think he got where he is without some steel in his backbone. I could be wrong, and we will see soon enough, but I’m still hoping. The man does have quite a lot on his plate to deal with. As he has said himself many times, it is up to us to keep the pressure on him to help bring about the changes we can believe in.

  6. Joan Broadfield said

    I must say that I am somewhat disappointed in this TOO EARLY evaluation of our President. We liberals seem always ready to ‘dis’ someone we had high hopes for.

    Like our times, the words that would condemn him to ‘death’ so quickly feel to me like the culture around us – expecting untold progress in much to unreasonable a time.

    I DISAGREE with your timetable. I think he’s on the ropes and needs much more encouragement to help him back. He’s warned us from the beginning how tough this job would be – a big boat to turn around. He knows that there are powerful voices on the right in the Jewish community.

    HE IS SO UNLIKE Clinton, who came in already making concessions for the ‘center’. He – more realistically – reminded us to make him do what we thought was right. HE CANNOT DO IT ALONE. Not healthcare; not peace in Middle East. The little steps he has taken have not been affirmed, so far as I can see, by those of us on the left.

    IT IS THIS sort of negative reaction that has us liberals stymied. Negative energy is its own worst enemy.

    • Aliza Becker said

      President Obama has placed resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict front and center of his administration from day one. Never before have we had a U.S. president so committed to a just two-state peace. President Obama is our best hope in decades and deserves our full backing. To not back him is to abandon the people whose fate we care about so deeply.

      President Obama’s team of Mideast diplomats is working relentlessly on multiple fronts to shift the status quo. They’ve already had numerous small successes with a government whose ruling party has long been opposed to many of the policies the Obama administration is endorsing. THE TRUTH IS THAT IT’S REALLY QUITE AMAZING HOW WELL THEY’VE DONE.

      The key challenge we should be addressing is how we as American Jews can create the conditions to help President Obama succeed. I hardly think quibbling about the ups and downs of various diplomatic efforts would help his leadership flourish. Instead, let’s come together in big numbers with a strong unified voice to support President Obama to go for broke. It’s time for us to win!

      • rabbibrian said

        I hear your passionate support for Obama. What I would like is some facts or details to back your assertion: “THE TRUTH IS THAT IT’S REALLY QUITE AMAZING HOW WELL THEY’VE DONE. I am not asking for this rhetorically but would really like to understand what you see as the accomplishments so far.

        Yes, we need to create the conditions that Obama can succeed and that is why we should push, urge, encourage him to insist on a settlement freeze much as we should about the public option in terms of health care. Health care without a public option and a “peace” without a settlement freeze, will both fail, benefiting the health insurance industry and the settler movement.

        Please share with us your thoughts about the accomplishments so far.

        Thanks so much for your passionate and thoughtful response and for your hard and dedicated work for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

      • Aliza Becker said

        Below is an annotated list of some of the shifts in Israeli policy as a direct result of the Obama administration’s actions. This is in addition to its outspokenness on numerous issues including ending home demolitions, freezing new settlement in East Jerusalem, normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab world, protesting the deprivation in Gaza, and much more.

        It is easy enough to be a naysayer and point out that none of these things is really “enough.” Of course they are modest. The administration is 7 months into trying to resolve a 60 year old conflict and dealing with an extreme right Israeli government. Let’s have some context here. This is an extremely difficult task.

        Lastly, I must admit to being taken aback that people who believe so passionately about peace feel they are doing Israelis and Palestinians a service by attacking our best advocate ever, President Obama, for RUMORS that there may be some kind of compromise on the settlement freeze in the future. (After all, the freeze is NOT final borders but merely a tactic to get there.) As Jonathan Alter just wrote in Newsweek about the healthcare debate, we will certainly loose if we are the “Sort-of-Maybe-Yes” Party versus the “Party of Hell No!” Let’s become the advocates of “Hell Yes!”

        Below is a brief list. If you want to know more, read the Brit Tzedek v’Shalom listserv.

        Prime Minister Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party whose platform calls for Greater Israel, endorsed two states.

        The Israeli government has removed a large number of checkpoints in the West Bank and opened the Allenby Crossing to the West Bank for longer hours.

        The Israelis have allowed a modest number of additional goods allowed into Gaza.

        This morning the Israeli government announced a willingness to allow Palestinian Americans entering via Ben Gurion and West Bank to have a visa to visit Israel if requested.

    • rabbibrian said

      Joan, thanks so much for your comment and the reminder that we must support Obama and help him come back. I understand your concern that it is too early for a negative evaluation. Maybe so, but there is a lot of room for concern and the need to push him to keep on track. He asked us to do this and we should.

      Thanks for reminding me and us all of the need not to come to a judgement too quickly. I hope you are right that it is too early to express disappointment. I have just been stunned at how easily the Israeli government has manipulated and controlled the debate. We need to change that.

  7. I have been an avid Obama supporter right from the first few primary debates. I had great faith in his ability to finally make progress in desperately important matters that other administrations and presidents mucked-up. Sadly, my faith in this president is waning. I am still a supporter, but red flags are waving in my face constantly.

    He is dropping the ball in far too many areas. Aside from permitting the Israel lobby to control the “talks negotiations,” he is apparently waffling on the public option in healthcare reform, he has disappointed the LGBT community, and his is seeking to increase our involvement in Afghanistan. Where is the transformational president we elected, and why is he rapidly deserting those of us who elected him?

  8. DeAnne Riddle said

    I agree with your statement that “Israel will never give up all the economic and political benefits of the occupation without pressure.”

    Naomi Klein in a speech in Ramallah on June 27 made a similar argument. She said there are two reasons why there is so little interest in peace within Israel.

    The two reasons are: 1) It is possible to live a relatively normal life in Israel in spite of the conflict, and 2) Israeli companies are not feeling the pinch from war. In fact, they are profiting from it. (Unfortunately, I think the same reasons apply to us in the U.S. Who is going to put pressure on us to stop the conflicts we are profiting from?)

    She said if you look at conflict zones throughout the world, societies turn from war when their people want to go back to leading a normal life, and when the business sector puts pressure on the government so it can engage in normal trading.

    She said that the security technologies – the surveillance cameras, the walls that allow biometric identification – allow Israelis to lead a relatively normal life. In addition, the large Homeland Security sector of the Israeli economy is profiting not only from the occupation, but also from exporting technologies that are tested in the Palestinian Territories. For example, private Israeli companies are selling their expertise to the U.S. government for the fence between the U.S. and Mexico. Without a conflict there would be little demand for their products at home or abroad.

  9. Y. Ben-David said

    In reading this piece, I note certain assumptions. One of them is that the “progressives” seem to think the Arab/Israeli conflict is perceived around the world in the same way as they perceive it….i.e. “the most pressing conflict in the world today”, “that the outlines of an agreement are ‘known’ to everyone and ‘everyone knows the terms of this agreement'”, and that the Arabs have supposedly accepted these terms and it is only a matter of getting Israel to accept them.

    Secondly, we have the following quote:
    I agree with your statement that “Israel will never give up all the economic and political benefits of the occupation without pressure.”
    The assumption that accompanies this statement is that if only the US Administration would flex its muscles and threaten the government in Israel, it could force Israel to go along with its policies.

    This second assumption is mistaken because it assumes everything is happening in a vacuum. As you are all aware, something like 70% of the American sympathize with Israel whereas only something like 17% identify with the Palestinians. If the Administration starts making unilateral pressure on Israel, there will be a political reaction. American voters will not understand why an ally of the US is being pressure while an entity hostile to the US (the Palestinians and their Arab backers) are getting off. Secondly extremist Arab forces in the Middle East can reach the conclusion that the US is cutting Israel loose, and that now is the time to go to war or step up the violence (this is what happened before the Six-Day War when France, who had been up to that time Israel’s main arms supplier decided to embargo arms shipments-this only encouraged Nasser to increase his already fiery anti-Israel rhetoric). So we see that “pressuring Israel” can lead to unforseen domestic and Middle Eastern complications.

    Regarding the first assumption, that the Arab/Israel conflict is “solvable” and of the highest priority, well, this is not really the case. Most people around the world realize that it is not solvable by way of reaching a contractual peace agreement. So is the US Administration willing to burn up its limited political capital on a wild goose chase? They won’t if they really understand the situation, especially considering Obama’s decline in popularity and the difficulties he is having in getting his domestic policies through.

    Thus, my advice to the “progressives” is to learn a little patience and to accept that things aren’n necessarily going to go their way, in spite of the all false hopes that Obama’s election gave them.

  10. Brian,

    I fear that your analysis has a great deal of truth and reality. I worked hard, as did many of us, for Obama’s election, and kept the perspective that I would support him right up until his election, and then become his critic. I never believed, even while campaigning for him, that he was particularly progressive (code work: electable), but held hopes that events would drive him to commit to positions stronger than he might otherwise have espoused. My fears, now, are that, knowing he is a centrist, he will not push hard enough to get the things he says that he wants. I am finding myself yearning for Lyndon Johnson, who ate Senators for breakfast. He is not radiating strength. He is not engaging, personally, in the processes–be it Israeli settlements or heath care–of creating solutions. Sometimes, putting out your views, and letting others carry them out creates dilution. I think, to be effective, a President needs to inspire awe, and even maybe a bit of fear in those who he deals with.

    He is a transcendent speaker. He has not used the Bully Pulpit to put health care in terms of human and civil rights. He has not backed up his Cairo speech with action, with personal arm twisting. He values debate among his advisors. This is good, but in the end, he is the one who must take a strong stand. I am disappointed that he appears willing to let go of the public option.

    I had great hopes after Cairo–a President who understand the Islamic world, and who appeared ready to hold both Israel’s and Palestine’s feet to the fire. I have not seen that strong arm in use.

  11. Brian,

    I think what is so difficult for so many of us is this nagging question: how far do you compromise until you’ve compromised your most basic and fundamental values? We must accept that every negotiation must involve compromise – but I believe there is at least cause for concern that Obama is compromising on fundamental issues right out of the starting gate.

    The settlements are not a “distraction” or a “side issue.” Settlements are a central issue. Settlements entrench the occupation, settlements contribute to the basic legal injustices on the ground, settlements are an essential sign of Israel’s seriousness about negotiations – and settlements will ultimately determine the very viability (or impossibility) of the two-state solution itself.

    I respectfully disagree with Aliza when she claims that making an issue of the settlements amounts to “quibbling over the ups and downs over various diplomatic efforts.” If Obama is unable or unwilling to draw the line on settlements, I can’t see how he will be able to pursue a viable and honest diplomatic effort going forward.

    I also hope Levy is wrong. I don’t think it is time to give up on Obama yet, but I also don’t think there is any shame in keeping him honest. There is simply too much at stake.

    • Aliza Becker said

      The principle goal of negotiations is to establish a Palestinian state. A settlement freeze is not by any means required to get a state. On the contrary, Israel could agree to a complete freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and not agree to establish a Palestinian state. A settlement freeze is an important confidence-building measure, however, it is not the end goal.

  12. David said

    I supported Obama. I made some phone calls for Obama. I did so for only one reason — I thought [and still think] that having a black president would be an enormous step forward for this country, culturally and in terms of race relations. I never had any high hopes for him politically and frankly I don’t understand why anyone would [except those who get excited about Democratic campaign slogans every four years anyway].

    What if anything is the specific meaning of “Yes We Can”? Like most political slogans, it’s a blank slate on which to project whatever you want. Usually some sort of nonspecific, nebulous quasi-populism. There are certain major political players, anyone who becomes president needs the support of one or more of those players, and barring a major realignment of forces any changes wuill be marginal.

    And don’t forget, this is the candidate whose very first act, after willing enough primaries to clinch the nomination, was to kowtow before AIPAC, even giving his support to Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

  13. Joel A. Levitt said

    Dear Brian,

    There are limits as to what President Obama can do, and the way to help him to promote Israeli/Palestinian peace is to participate in the same process that elected him, not to complain about the present lack of progress. We must also prepare for the possibility that the President’s best efforts will prove to be inadequate.

    Obama must deal with many problems, of which Israeli/Palestinian peace is only one. His first responsibility is to deal with those problems that are most threatening to America, including: the security-clearance and wire-tapping threats to our freedom and to our control of our government, the economic crisis, the growing income and wealth gap, and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Coping with each of these problems will require Congressional, particularly Senatorial, action, and this itself is a problem.

    The Democrats hold 60 seats in the Senate, enough to carry a motion to end debate. However, Senators Byrd and Kennedy are ill and are not participating. There appear to be three Republican Senators who are working with the democrats to draft a bill that will improve our unfair and potentially bankrupting health care system. These three may quit the effort, and the Committee will have to report out a bill without their support. Alternatively, they may continue until the Committee votes to report out a bill. In either case, if more than one of them subsequently observes Republican Party discipline and/or if more than one of the conservative Democratic Senators defects, then a protracted filibuster will ensue. During this filibuster, the Senate will do nothing about health care and will do nothing about any other threatening issue. Obama’s falling popularity isn’t helping, and our complaints will only aggravate the situation.

    If we want the administration to turn its full attention on Israeli/Palestinian peace as soon as possible, our best course of action is to vigorously support the President’s present efforts. Still, even if the President and the Congress succeed in dealing with their higher priority issues, the President’s best efforts with regard to Israeli/Palestinian peace may prove to be inadequate. What then?

    The results of the early June ‘o9 polls of 528 Israelis and 1270 Palestinians (living in the West Bank and in Gaza) conducted jointly by the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute and the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research are most informative. The majorities of both the Israelis and the Palestinians believed that conditions in their areas of residence were bad. Of the Israeli respondents, 75% believed that conditions in Israel ranged from “So-So” to “Very Bad.” Of the Palestinian respondents 86.9% of the Gazans and 64.8% of the West Bank residents also believed that the conditions of their lives ranged from “So-So” to “Very Bad.” So, one might expect ground swells of public opinions to force their governments to negotiate a cooperative peace very soon. However, these polls also revealed that 61.3% of the Israeli respondents and 69.2% of the Palestinian respondents believed that the chance of a successful negotiation within 5 years was “Low” to “Nonexistent.” Why?

    These polls also revealed that 6o.5% of the Israeli respondents were worried that they or members of their families would be hurt by the Arabs, and 44.7% of the Palestinian respondents were worried that they or members of their families would be hurt by Israel. The stumbling block is their fear of each other.

    What we must do to advance the cause of peace is support the work of the many Israeli and Palestinian organizations which are trying to dispel these fears by promoting positive one-on-one contacts between average Israelis and average Palestinians.

    Warm regards,


  14. Daniel Vrooman said

    Dear Brian,

    Jeff Halper, an Israeli professor of anthropology, asserts that Israeli “ethnocracy,” based on tribal nationalism and maintained by a security paradigm, is an obstacle to any vision of peace based on justice and inclusion. He defines ethnocracy as follows:
    It arises when one particular group….seizes control of the government and armed forces in order to enforce a regime of exclusive privilege in what is in fact a multi-ethnic or multi-religious society. Ethnocracy, or ethno-nationalism, privileges ethnos over demos, whereby one’s ethnic affiliation takes precedence over citizenship in determining to whom a county actually “belongs.”
    Even though Arabs can be granted a certain level of Israeli citiizenship and rights without upsetting the balance of this ethnocracy, there are serious structural inequalities such as the marginalization of Arabs in the Knesset, the Law of Return, land issues, housing and education, house demolitions aimed at Arabs, religious laws governing marriages, and burial codes.
    Also, given the long standing history of Jerusalem vomiting out expulsion, why don’t Zionists, as well as our very own President Barack Obama, understand the need to harpoon the very mindset that creates a blatant whale of a wall of dispossession?


    Dan Vrooman

    • Y. Ben-David said

      Daniel Vrooman-

      I suggest that you press President Obama to also look at the “enthnocentric” tendencies among Israel’s Arab neighbors. It is not enough to say you oppose Israel or Jewish “tribalism” and then to turn around and ignore Arab/Muslim “tribalism”. For exmaple, in Jordan and the Palestinian territories there is law calling for a death sentence to anyone who sells land to Jews. Discriminatory Sharia laws apply in these countries, which, for example, forbid conversion of Muslims to other religions, forbid Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men, which ban non-Muslims from opening restaurants during daylight hours during the Ramadan fasting month (which we are currently in). They also have religious laws governing marriage and burial, just like Israel does. None of these countries have democratic governments. Any Palestinian state that might be set up will also be like all the other Arab/Muslim countries of the Middle East. So I think it is incumbent on all “progressives” to insist that the US work to get rid of all these supposedly undesirable characteristics in ALL of the Middle East, and not just Israel.

      • Joel A. Levitt said

        Y. Ben-David,

        Your description of Middle East Arab societies is largely correct, although you failed to mention that their are reformers in every Arab state who are trying to change this tragic situation, and you failed to mention that the Palestinian society, with its secular tradition and generally high level of education, is the most likely to avoid this awful fate. But, I can’t believe that you want Israel to follow the Arab model.

    • David said


      The only relevant difference between apartheid South Africa and Israel is that Israel was able to displace most of its population of the non-ruling group. If Israel were 75 percent Arab, like South Africa,* and they wanted to maintain the same system, they would have to take similar measures. As I think Israeli leaders have acknowledged [I know Ehud Olmert acknowledged this while he was in office].

      For further reading on ethnocracy, see the work of Professor Oren Yiftachel of Ben Gurion University in Beersheva.

      Re what you called “Arab/Muslim tribalism”:

      Talmud [?] says you “feed the hungry of your own city first.” The secular version is “charity begins at home.” In tikkun olam, our first responsibility is to address the transgressions of groups of which we are members. We have a greater chance to change them, and we are also more likely to be held responsible for them.

      We are Americans [not sure if all here are] and Jews. The moral and financial support of the US, and of the Jewish world, make Israel’s abuses possible. Therefore our responsibility, as well as the most practical course of action, is to address them first and foremost.

      — David

      • Y. Ben-David said

        I am sorry, but you can’t separate what is going on in the Middle East into “our problems” and “their problems”. “Progressives” often advocate ignoring the deficiencies of the Arab countries using arguments like these ,which often contain a certain amount of racism by implying: “Jews are morally superior so we are supposed to serve as an example to the world (‘tikkun olam’), thus we hold Israel to standards that no other country in the same situation could live up to.

        The official Egyptian and Palestinian media carry out a daily campaign of Judeophobic calumny against Israel and the Jewish people. The Chief Palestinian Authority Islamic Judge just a few days ago said anyone who says there was a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem or Jewish Kingdom in Eretz Israel is lying. Do you seriously think people who spread this type of propaganda are seriously interested in making peace with Israel. Thus, we see that the internal problems, the corruption and anti-Israel, anti-Western and anti-democratic tendencies DIRECTLY affect relations between Israel and these countries. Simply threating Israel to make concessions (as many of Obama’s followers seem to advocate) simply makes the situation worse, leading the Arabs to think the US will simply “deliver” Israel on a silver platter.
        There can not be any progress to peace unless the Arab/Muslim neighbors of Israel are prepared to adopt a more progressive and conciliatory approach. Unfortunately, it seems the trend is in the opposite direction. Obama’s Administration must become aware of this if they are going to to have any sort of positive influence in the area.

    • David said

      *Not sure of the exact percentage of blacks in South Africa, but obviously it’s a considerable majority.

  15. It seems to me quite appropriate to recognize defects in Israeli democracy, and shortcomings and failures on Israel’s part in the quest for peace, and to work our hardest to correct these. But it is patronizing in the extreme to divest Palestinians and other Arab nations of moral and political agency by romanticizing their societies and governments or giving them a pass on their responsibilities. That is far too often the case with much of the Left, including Jeff Halper, invoked above.

    For the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” movement to earn and deserve credibility, we must struggle to balance our idealism, and our critiques of Israeli policy, with a hard-headed realism about the problems Israel faces in dealing with its neighbors. One-sided critiques, laying all blame and responsibility on Israel, are not true to the facts and undermine credibility with potentially receptive Israelis. Treating Israel’s antagonists–and potential partners in peace–as lacking responsibility for their actions does no one any favors, and earns us no respect. To claim that factually noting failures in both sets of societies constitutes “want[ing] Israel to follow the Arab model” misrepresents the point being made and diminishes our conversation.

  16. Alan Brigish said

    I think its too early to tell. Compromise means just that and politics IS the art of the possible. I too would like to see him take a tougher line but he has many constiuencies that he must address.

    It’s early days. He’s been in office 6 months. Give him at least another 18 months before taking the position that “With great sorrow and deep consternation, we hereby declare the death of the latest hope.”

    PS: I wish you could post with larger type. This is very hard for me to read.

  17. Elizabth Sholes said

    What bothers me about this, and especially about the interwoven arguments about health care, is that there is precisely no evidence that he’s “giving away” the public option which he most emphatically has not done, and our insistence that in seven month he has the capacity to change 60 years of history. His policies are not centrist – his concern is. He is watching for what will endure, how he can change the message, how he can move the debate. We all furiously decried the imperial presidency, and yet that’s what we want in “our guy”. Consider the chaos and ask if you are prepared to live with the violence here and abroad that a sweeping change in anything would engender. If you are, then keep advocating for the lefty imperial movement. If not, then watch how well the issues are migrating from the extreme right, Israel-only mindset to a considered and deliberate movement toward changing the values and then the debate and then the policy. You cannot pretend there are not pro-Israeli extremists in our own nation, or domestic terrorists in our midst, and that the fabric of our entire society is in peril. Radical action serves only the temporary ‘feel good’ desires of us all to stop the policies since Nixon and do a marked about face. But whom does it benefit? We never got THIS far before. Rejoice! In a scant 7 months Obama got farther than any other president. Next steps – YOU say what you want and keep saying it.

    I have far too much direct, life-altering experience with violence from the status quo and extremist factions to be anything but relived that Obama is being considered and careful. I want peace in the Mideast, not more mayhem and death. I salute anyone who keeps pressing but does so without blowing us all to hell. Change just will NOT come overnight, and for that I am thankful – because when it does come, it will have presence and endurance; it will be transformative.

  18. Joel A. Levitt said

    Ms. Sholes,

    Your comment was cogent and very much needed.



  19. Iris Winogrond said

    Rabbi Brian’s blog offered not only his excellent analysis of the complex issues re Israel/US relations, but has generated thoughtful responses that push its readers to appreciate the realities of power politics.

    When the US government was pushing American Indians off the land as it promoted the settlement of the West, there was no contest as to which group had the power to win. The similarities of that era with the continued vision of many Israelis/Zionists that Israel belongs “from sea to sea” to a Jewish state cannot be ignored. However, President Obama is dealing not only with the realities of current Israeli power politics. Where is the ground-swell of Israeli public opinion to dispel the deep fear of both Israelis and Arabs that their security and well-being cannot be trusted to the other?

    The US and world public who see a two-state solution as the only viable alternative to more years of suffering and bloodshed must continue to support the organizations that work on many fronts, such as 1)growing economic development of Palestinian enterprises, 2) ongoing pressure to halt settlement expansion in any form, and 3)continued human rights activities. We need a persistent presence in the US media as well as before this Administration and our Congressional representatives to support economic as well as political solutions for the future of a Middle East peace.

  20. Dear Mr. President:

    I am a strong supporter of yours and worked diligently on your campaign. You are leading us through difficult times. And there have been many successes to be proud of.

    However, we voted for CHANGE. And, it was “Change We Can Believe In”. We elected a majority of Democrats in both the House and the Senate. And we need your leadership.

    Please show us your clear and distinct goals in the areas that you championed when you were elected. You inspired us all. Inspire us again.

    Please restore our Constitution.

    Please show the World that we are a country of laws and morality and that the United States will never use torture.

    Be clear about the complex goals in the Middle East with Israel and the Palestinians, Iraq and Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. What are our goals? What are our values? What are we willing to sacrifice? Who are our allies? We need vision.

    AND PLEASE lead our government to a place where we have guaranteed health care for all, including a strong public option.

    These are all matters of morality that demand clear thinking and courage. We know you have heart. We know that you can inspire. Please lead us, and the world, to a place of peace, justice and compassion.


    Nicholas Boonin

  21. Lee Diamond said

    I am stunned by the amount of words spilled over the failures of BaracK Obama, but I’m glad Elizabeth and Aliza came in to correct the record.

    Brian and Gideon have allowed the political climate to persuade them that they should lock their fears into writings on stone tablets.

    Who is the last President to come into office facing so many problems?

    Give the guy a break. STOP TEARING HIM DOWN!

    • rabbibrian said


      With all due respect, “tearing him down?” Is all criticism of Obama forbidden? Can we not support his efforts and challenge him when we feel he is not being strong enough, clear enough or is compromising something essential? He asked us to push him, do you think we shouldn’t? I am happy to wait and see but so far I think he has been hopelessly outsmarted by Netanyahu and I frankly don’t see many changes on the ground. My focus is on the suffering of the Palestinians and as far as I can see, things have only got worse since Obama came to office. For instance, what would you say to the Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarah who have been evicted or to the people of Gaza living in an open air prison, or to Palestinians who own land on which we are building new houses in the settlements? Just wait, we are working on it? We will sort it out? You may have lost your home now but our new President will change everything in due course as long as your keep quiet and we all support him.

      Of course I understand he faces an unbelievable array of problems and I appreciate his inspiring vision and words, especially about a new relationship between America and the Muslim world. I would like to help him to make at least some of the vision reality. Tomorrow he meets with Netanyahu and Abbas and maybe it will mark a breakthrough. I will be happy to be proven wrong, but in the interim I will share my honest assessment of where we are and my support for Obama’s vision.

  22. anyway thanks so much for the article..

  23. Those that restrict on your own with self-doubt, and self-limiting assumptions, you won’t ever find a way to interrupt previous what you deem unfeasible.

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