U.S. elections: No endorsement

President Obama’s record on the Palestinian issue is so bad that the winner of the upcoming elections is irrelevant.

President Barack Obama watches as PM Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas shake hands. While the administration is clearly frustrated with Netanyahu, it has also lost interest in the Palestinian cause. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama watches as PM Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas shake hands. While the administration is clearly frustrated with Netanyahu, it has also lost interest in the Palestinian cause. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Four years ago, I traveled to the United States to cover the Democratic and Republican conventions. It was an inspiring experience, largely due to the unique feelings that accompanied the candidacy of (now) president Obama. Judging from afar, it seems that much of this excitement is gone, and the current elections are a frustrating and rather cynical experience. Still, if I were an American living in the U.S., I probably would have voted for President Obama for many reasons – from LGBT rights to Supreme Court nominations. Living in a country that provides affordable and rather effective public health care, the only problem I see with Obamacare is the rather limited goals of the program.

But I am not American, and I would like to judge these elections from my perspective as an Israeli, and mainly through the issues that dominate my political engagement.

My country, Israel, was mentioned 34 times in the U.S. presidential debate on foreign policy. Only Iran got more mentions, and most of them also had to do with Israel. China, seen by many as the greatest challenge to the United States, came in a close third. Strangely enough, the Palestinians – whose issue is so closely linked to Israel’s – were only mentioned once, and even this one time was by Romney – a man who thinks there is no way to end the conflict and no need to terminate the occupation, so why bother.

This week, wearing his new, moderate persona, Romney had this to say:

You look at the record of the last four years and say, is Iran closer to a bomb? Yes. Is the Middle East in tumult? Yes. Is — is al-Qaida on the run, on its heels? No. Is — are Israel and the Palestinians closer to — to reaching a peace agreement? No, they haven’t had talks in two years. We have not seen the progress we need to have…

Leaving aside the absurd notion that it is the role of the United States to end the “turmoil” in the Middle East, New Romney has a point. It is no surprise that President Obama failed to address the Palestinian issue, or as Americans like to call it, “the peace process.” The administration had very little to be proud of.

Shortly after president Obama was elected, he promised not to turn his back on the Palestinian people. It was a brave statement, considering that in some places, even mentioning the word Palestinians is a non-starter. Yet those turned out to be empty words, when it was revealed that the administration couldn’t stand the political price that the Israeli prime minister made it pay at home. After some back and forth between Jerusalem and Washington, the president appointed Dennis Ross – the man most associated with the diplomatic failure of the last couple of decades – to head  Middle East policy, or more accurately, to win favors with the Lobby and the heads of the Jewish communities. The president then blocked a largely symbolic Palestinian statehood bid at the UN, and ended up vetoing a Security Council resolution on the settlements that was a copy of previous State Department declarations.

Today, the United States is the enabler of the occupation: it provides the military infrastructure, the financial aid and the diplomatic cover for it. If it hadn’t done so, the continuing denial of basic human rights from millions would have ended long ago. Some might argue that the president had no choice, and that this is the result of unique circumstances and power relations in Washington. If so, then Washington needs to change, and right now, there is no reason to support those denying it. While the administration is clearly frustrated and resentful of Prime Minister Netanyahu, it also seems to have simply lost interest in the Palestinian issue.

The Palestinian issue is the main reason for my political engagement. The desire to end the occupation and to have Palestinians enjoy equal rights is what lies behind most of my political choices. There is something hollow in the robotic repetition of a commitment to Israel, without showing the slightest interest in the fundamental matter that shapes the lives of real people here, Jews and Arabs. It simply feels wrong to play along with this attitude, no matter how effectively one can rationalize it.

I do not expect the United States to pick sides in Israeli politics and I don’t want it to be anti-Israel. I expect it to be anti-occupation. In this particular sense, the Obama administration was much worse than Bush’s, who forced the road map upon both sides, and made Israel abandon its plan to built in the E1 region northeast of Jerusalem. Naturally, Bush was operating in a different environment, but as even former head of Mossad Ephrayim Halevi notes, for some reason Republican administrations are always more effective at keeping Israeli expansionist tendencies at bay. Maybe we should keep this in mind. In terms of policy – and not just rhetoric – I am not that sure anymore that a Romney administration would be that different from Obama’s.

There will be unfortunate and unpleasant results for a Republican victory in the coming elections. The celebrations in both the Israeli right and neo-con circles will be difficult to bear. Some might argue that it would make the Lobby even more powerful. But such micro-politics can only take you so far. At the end of the day, leaders should be judged on their actions. If Israel wasn’t on the agenda at all, it would have been a different case. But Israel is discussed constantly, and the administration has been making all  bad choices. There is zero evidence that things will be better in the second term – only wishful thinking. It’s simply not enough to win my support.

Luckily, I don’t get to vote.