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"Undivided" Allegiance: The Meaning of Obama's AIPAC Moment

06/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sandy Tolan Author of "The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East."

It's a crucial moment for anyone seeking a realistic shot at the presidency: Stand before the leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and declare your unyielding support for Israel.

Barack Obama is no different. On Wednesday, Obama, well aware that some American Jews fear he is not pro-Israel enough, or that he is some secret Manchurian Muslim, followed John McCain and Hillary Clinton to the AIPAC podium for his necessary rite of passage. Fully aware of fears deeply rooted in the Holocaust and decades of subsequent bloodshed, Obama pounded the security nail no less than 20 times -- "I will never compromise when it comes to Israel's security... Israel's security is sacrosanct... I will bring to the White House an unshakable commitment to Israel's security..." But then the candidate went a leap further, vaulting over President Bush and landing to his right. "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel," the candidate declared, "and it must remain undivided."

Undivided? This has always been an odd word to describe a city inhabited on one side by Palestinians. Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied and then annexed, despite widespread international condemnation, after the Six Day War in 1967, is under continuous Israeli control through a heavily armed presence. The fact is that, despite the seizing of Palestinian land for rings of Jewish settlements, which Israelis now consider their East Jerusalem "suburbs," there is very little traffic between the Arab and Jewish neighborhoods in the city. Undivided, Jerusalem is not.

But Obama's use of the word is not simply the naïve musing of a man who apparently has never traveled through the fractured city. It is a raw attempt to jump through hoops for "America's pro-Israel lobby," as AIPAC describes itself -- a lobby which stands far to the right of the sensibilities of many American Jews. (Hence the recent rise of a more progressive lobby, "J-Street.")

For Obama's pledge that "Jerusalem must remain undivided" is a smackdown to decades of Palestinians' dreams and demands that East Jerusalem be the capital of their own state. By insisting that the city remains "undivided," Obama thus places himself firmly in the camp of the hard right in Israel (think Bibi Netanyahu), and outside the lines of decades of negotiations for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "This statement is totally rejected," declared Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "The whole world knows that holy Jerusalem was occupied in 1967 and we will not accept a Palestinian state without having Jerusalem as the capital."

Indeed, ever since 1988, when Yasser Arafat announced that the PLO would end decades of struggle to "liberate" all of old Palestine (which included modern Israel) and settle for a state on 22 percent of that land (the West Bank and Gaza), East Jerusalem has been at the center of Palestinian aspirations. The failure of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Clinton administration to fully recognize this, and to offer only pieces of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, contributed greatly to the collapse at Camp David in 2000. In fact, the entire Muslim world considers the Palestinians the guardians of the city's Islamic holy sites. Hence, any Palestinian leader who negotiates away the Holy City's Haram al-Sharif -- the third most sacred site in Islam -- is essentially signing his own death warrant. "Do you want to come to my funeral?" Arafat pointedly asked Clinton just before the end at Camp David.

Even now, with Israel reportedly offering far less -- an expansion of Jerusalem's municipal boundaries, so that Arab villages could be considered the East Jerusalem Palestinian "capital" -- the Bush administration is distancing itself from Obama's Netanyahu-esque remarks. Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said discussions would continue "without respect to the presidential politics that is clearly ongoing." It is stunning that an administration which has essentially abandoned all pretense of being an "honest broker" between the two sides, and which has undermined Abbas by refusing even to pressure Israel to eliminate some of the 600 West Bank military checkpoints in an area smaller than Delaware, now finds itself to the left of Senator Obama on this issue.

Obama's AIPAC speech sent shock waves throughout much of the Arab World, where the prospect of an African-American president with a rich international background seemed, to them, to promise a more balanced U.S. policy in the Middle East. "A slap in the face," said the Kuwaiti paper al-Watan. "An oath of allegiance by the U.S. presidency to AIPAC," declared the Lebanese opposition paper, Al-Safir. Others downplayed the remark, believing that any Democratic administration will be an improvement over eight years of Bush policy. Former Palestinian labor secretary Ghassan Khatib said Obama's speech "stressed more that anything else his intention to engage, which is the most important need." And Obama, a day after the speech, attempted to soften his remarks, saying, "Obviously it's going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations." Yet he added that Israel has a "legitimate claim" to all of Jerusalem, a comment which will do little to tamp down Arab anxieties.

Why, then, would Obama, with all the expectation of a more even-handed presidency, and the promise to help repair the U.S.'s shredded image in the Arab and Muslim worlds, seek, in the words of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, to be "more Israeli than the Israelis"? Part of the answer may boil down to crude electoral politics, especially in Florida, where Obama's strategists seem to be calculating that the five percent of Jewish voters there could swing the entire election for the Democrats.

But in deeper ways, Obama seems to be running as fast as he can from the friendships and affinities he has developed and expressed for Arabs in the past, including his statement in Iowa early in the campaign that "no one is suffering more than the Palestinians." The senator's AIPAC "corrective" is an effort -- stay tuned for more -- to be less like the "other," and more like "us." But are "we" truly so narrow-minded as to reject the aspirations of all such "others", or to ever consider their hopes and dreams? Apparently, Obama, tacking right, thinks the answer is yes.

-- Sandy Tolan is the author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, and associate professor of journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication at USC.