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Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus

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Obama's Israel Policy: A Bad, Sad Joke

Posted: 04/21/11 01:29 AM ET

Did you hear the one about the elephant who had a mouse cornered and trampled on that mouse from time to time, whenever he felt like it? The president of the United States stepped in to make peace between them. "We Americans have always been committed to peace and freedom and the rights of the underdog," he explained.

So the president sent a message to the mouse: "I'll arrange a plan so the elephant will leave you alone -- but only under one condition: The plan must include ironclad guarantees for the elephant's security. We can't have you, mouse, threatening the elephant's security any longer. We are pledged to protect the elephant, because we care so deeply about the rights of the underdog."

Get it? No, it's not funny like ha-ha. It's funny like weird. But that's precisely the weird, irrational message Barack Obama is sending to the Palestinians as they struggle for freedom from the Israeli elephant.

Take a look at Helene Cooper's latest front page story in the New York Times. Bringing the Israel-Palestine conflict back into the limelight, she reports that Obama would like to put forth his own peace plan with four main "terms of reference." Israel would accept a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital. The Palestinians would give up the right of return to land in Israel and "Israeli security would have to be protected."

That last term -- protecting Israeli security -- has shown up in everything the president has ever said in public, or been reported to say in private, about the conflict. And it's precisely the reason that Obama has not yet presented a peace plan and may not ever do so.

Let me explain: Cooper reports that Obama wants to present his plan but he's being blocked by Dennis Ross, his senior advisor on the Middle East. How can an advisor block the president he serves? you may well ask.

Ross isn't just any old advisor. He's been an advisor on Mideast affairs in every presidential administration since Jimmy Carter (with the exception of George W.) And he has consistently been noted for his "pro-Israel" (actually pro-Israeli-government) bias, doing his best to keep the U.S. tilted in that direction. His appointment as Obama's top man on the Mideast was seen as a major triumph for the right-wing pro-Israel lobby.

In effect, then, it's the lobby preventing Obama from offering his peace plan -- because that plan would call for major concessions that the Israelis don't want to make. And the lobby can get what it wants because, with an election looming, Obama sees it as too politically dangerous to buck the lobby.

The problem is not American Jews, most of whom would favor a plan like Obama's. The problem is the Republicans, who sympathize with Israel rather the Palestinians by an astounding 19 to 1 margin.

After last November's elections, as Cooper notes, "Representative Eric Cantor told Mr. Netanyahu that the new G.O.P. majority in the House would 'serve as a check on the administration,' in a statement that was rare for its blunt disagreement on American foreign policy as conveyed to a foreign leader ... Brian Katulis, a national security expert with the Center for American Progress, said that Republicans were trying to 'make Israel a partisan wedge issue.'"

The GOP is eager to cast Obama as a friend of the Palestinians because "everyone knows" (they'll say) that those Palestinians are bloodthirsty terrorists who will destroy poor little Israel if they ever get the chance. And the ploy can work because the image of Israel as the underdog -- the spunky David defending itself against the huge Arab Goliath -- is so widely believed in the U.S., even though it's absurd to the few who look at the facts.

Why do so many believe that it's the elephant who is in danger and needs security guaranteed? Largely because every official voice, from the president on down, has been saying so repeatedly, for decades.

Which brings us back to the irony of Obama. Suppose he really does want to offer a peace plan. By saying that it must protect Israel's security, he reinforces the most powerful political factor preventing him from offering the plan. Funny, huh? And sad.

However the Palestinians may have the last laugh. The final paragraph of Helene Cooper's story explains why:

"Much of the debate is taking place under a pending deadline of the United Nations General Assembly meeting scheduled in September, when the Assembly is expected to broadly endorse Palestinian statehood in a vote that could prove deeply embarrassing to Israel and the United States, which are both expected to vote against it." It looks like the Palestinians, come September, may be the mouse that roared.

That's why they've already got the Israeli elephant -- and, even more so, the American great white whale -- over a barrel. Obama is not sure he can afford the embarrassment of voting against a freedom movement that all the rest of the world applauds. But he's even less sure that he can afford the political damage at home of offering his own peace plan, which means demanding concessions from Israel that could bring down Israel's right-wing government.

Obama and his administration may well remain paralyzed unless enough American voters come to realize that fears about Israel's security are a tragicomic joke. It's time to stop worrying about the elephant and pay attention to the real security threat, the threat that Israel poses to the Palestinians every day.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.