Obama’s Peace, Our Occupation

Cover of Shimon Peres' book from 1993

Cover of Shimon Peres’ book from 1993

Watching Obama's speech in Rabin square. From Peace Now facebook page.

Watching Obama’s speech in Rabin square. From Peace Now facebook page.

Despite the low expectations about President Obama’s visit to Israel and Palestine, everyone on the Israeli left seems to want to talk about his speech to Israeli students, which was also his direct address to the Israeli public rather than its politicians. Quick off the mark was Moriel Rothman in his Leftern Wall blog, who found five positive points in the otherwise biased, ‘gloop-filled’ speech, such as Obama’s call for an independent, viable Palestinian state to achieve peace, his condemnation of unpunished settler violence, and especially the phrase: ‘Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer’. Similarly, Gush Shalom praised the speech for reminding us ‘that peace is possible and necessary, that we do have a partner for peace, … and that Israel must end the occupation’. Peace Now labelled it a ‘historic speech’. Commentators in Ha’aretz were impressed too. Ari Shavit considered the 18 minutes of the speech dedicated to the pursuit of a necessary, just and possible peace to be ‘a soft admonishment’ to Israelis in what was otherwise ‘a royal visit of love’. According to Barak Ravid, the speech was ‘a combination of a warm embrace and a punch in the gut’, both identifying with Jewish Israeli self-perceptions and also trying to ‘shake their paranoia and their fears’. More critical voices on the +972 blog noted that while the speech contained some ‘niceties regarding peace … the Right proved that the occupation has no cost, that the rift with the U.S. doesn’t exist and that denying the Palestinians their freedom is sustainable policy’. Obama called settlements ‘counterproductive’ to peace, but he did not repeat his 2009call for a freeze. And he endorsed the recent Israeli expectation to be recognized as a Jewish State by the Palestinian Authority, even though about twenty percent of Israel’s population isn’t Jewish but Palestinian Arab.

Obama’s visit to Israel was a successful charm offensive, his speech being a key part of that by taking rhetorical responsibility for the state of mind of the Jewish Israeli public. He did this most clearly when he said first in Hebrew and then in English ‘You are not alone’ so long as the USA exists, a point repeated twice when he said that ‘Israel has the unshakable support of the most powerful country in the world’ and that the USA is ‘a country that you can count on as your greatest friend’. Before first making that point, he had rehearsed the Zionist narrative of Jewish exile, persecution, and longing for return to the promised land, of building the land, of resilient defence in the face of external hatred and military threats to the state’s existence and terrorism, of rebuffed offers for peace to the Arab world. No wonder, then, that for the audience in Ramallah Obama’s speech proved that he’s more Jewish than the Jews, according Amira Hass’s report. And perhaps it’s less surprising, given all this reassurance that Jewish Israeli fears are not only understood but also justified, that the applause continued to punctuate Obama’s speech when he called for justice for Palestinians too, for them to be ‘a free people in their own land’ (echoing the words of Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, in reference to Jewish nationhood).

In advance of Obama’s delivery of the speech, we were told that its writer, Ben Rhodes, would want to convey messages that ‘that Israel can no longer rely on authoritarian leaders in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world to help guarantee its security’ and that ‘people can make a difference, even if their leaders are stuck’. Those points were made, but what matters more are the grounds of the American appeal to Jewish Israel (overlooking the non-Jewish fifth of Israel) which is based on complete American identification with Israel. The speech also hopes that the reassurance of this empathetic identification will propel Jewish Israelis to identify with what it takes to be the shared hopes of Palestinians. It offers an image of peace in which both Israelis and Palestinians are said to want the same things: ‘the ability to make their own decisions and to get an education and to get a good job, to worship God in their own way, to get married, to raise a family’. The speech asks the audience to imagine ‘a future in which Jews and Muslims and Christians can all live in peace and greater prosperity in this Holy Land’. In the final section of the speech, Obama focused on Israeli prosperity and innovation, echoing the Israeli PR image of the ‘start-up nation’. He figured Israel as the embodiment of that which people across the Middle East ‘are yearning for — education, entrepreneurship, the ability to start a business without paying a bribe, the ability to connect to the global economy’. In other words, Obama asked Jewish Israelis to identify peace with the sort of prosperity offered by neo-liberal global capitalism, the prosperity that some Israelis do enjoy, but most feel excluded from, as demonstrated by the massive social protests of the summer of 2011. Nonetheless, it is a positive image of peace that speaks to Israeli sensibilities, a continuation of the charm offensive. His host, Israeli President Shimon Peres, had tried to sell a similar image of peace at the time of the Oslo agreements, but his vision of a prosperous new Middle East has long since been tarnished by the absence of peace and the failure of negotiations.

Yet, in another key section of the speech Obama identified peace as justice, first insisting on the centrality of Israeli security to any peace agreement, then calling on Israelis to identify with Palestinians, to ‘put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes’. Briefly, Jewish Israelis were invited to see the Israeli military as a ‘foreign army’ in the Palestinian occupied territories, to see themselves as farmers barred from their land and families displaced from their homes. But only briefly, and then peace as justice gave way to peace as prosperity, and the Israeli audience saw itself mirrored again in America’s unconditional love, the favoured child of its Big (M)Other, tied by a relationship that began just ‘eleven minutes after Israeli independence’.

In this speech Obama failed to ‘create the change that you want to see’, if indeed he wanted to picture peace as justice and for Israelis to identify with Palestinians. Instead, he reinforced the prevalent Israeli view that their security takes precedence over justice for Palestinians (in the form of the ending of occupation and independent statehood). The speech reassures Jewish Israelis that they should repeat their hegemonic narrative of victimhood and persecution, according to which the question of justice pertains primarily to righting the wrong of past generations through present force and might. Seeing itself in the mirror of American power, when asked to see the world through Palestinian eyes, this Jewish Israeli narrative can see only that a Palestinian child is being beaten, not that we are beating the Palestinian child.

No justice, no peace.

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