Tag Archives: Gush Shalom

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.

Obama and the Hope for Peace

Memorial in Rabin Square

Memorial in Rabin Square


Since 6th February, 2013, 20,000 people have signed up to a Facebook campaign calling on US President Barack Obama to address the Israeli people from Rabin Square during his upcoming visit to Israel next month. What does this direct, socially-mediated call to Obama mean? What do those Israelis want from Obama? The answers to those questions are simultaneously encouraging and dispiriting, indicating both grounds for hope and despair.

To begin with, there is the powerful symbolism of Obama speaking form the same platform as former Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, did on the night he was assassinated by a right-wing extremist on 5th November, 1995. The large square in central Tel Aviv, formerly known as Kings of Israel Square, was renamed after Rabin following his murder, and a small group still visits the memorial to Rabin at the side of the square, on the spot where he was shot in the back, after addressing a large pro-peace rally. Israeli public support for the Oslo process, fiercely contested by the settler movement and Israeli right-wing, as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the Palestinian side was waning at the time. The key slogan for the rally was: ‘yes to peace, no to violence’, but violence prevailed. Whether or not the terrorist’s shots killed the Oslo peace along with Rabin is another question, but that is how it seemed to those Israelis who saw in Rabin’s death the sacrifice of an idealized ‘warrior for peace’ and the embodiment of the Jewish Israeli public who had voted for him – largely Ashkenazi, middle class, educated, secular, and culturally hegemonic. The mourning for this idealized figure became melancholic, becoming an ongoing state of being, in which love was not redirected to another champion of peace (or peace initiative), but wrapped up in narcissistic identification with the lost object. In brief, some of the symbolism of Obama speaking from Rabin’s platform refers to melancholic mourning in which the loss of peace is mourned, but peace is not pursued actively.

Yet, perhaps if Obama speaks from Rabin’s platform, all that emotional investment in mourning peace will instead be transferred to Obama. Perhaps Obama will bring the peace that Rabin was prevented from making. Such hopes were attached to Obama on his election in 2008, among others by veteran peace activist Uri Avnery in his weekly column. Not coincidentally, the peace group that Avnery heads, Gush Shalom, published a notice on 8th February 2013 in the Ha’aretz newspaper (as it does each week) that repeats the expectation that Obama will sort things out for Israel: ‘President Obama/Will ask for/Clear answers/On Peace, The Palestinian state, Occupation and settlements’. Obama’s political image, especially in those thrilling days of 2008, is one of hope. The Facebook campaign for Obama to speak for peace in Rabin Square is a campaign for hope that peace, not mourning for its loss, can fill Israeli hearts again. Obama can be our leader, another Moses, an African prince found in the bull rushes who will lead us to the Promised Land. I’d like to believe that myself. He could even Hebraize his name for the role, becoming Baruch Ben Ami.

But from the start, the expectations for Obama’s visit and progress to peace should realistically have been kept low. On 5th February 2013 the New York Times reported that the US president was ‘not expected to unveil concrete proposals for bringing Israelis and Palestinians together during his visit or initiate a specific new peace process’. The prevailing opinion is that on the agenda for his visit will be the ‘burning issues’ of the Iranian nuclear programme, the civil war in Syria, leaving the question of Palestinian-Israeli peace further down the list of priorities. Writing in Challenge, an on-line magazine, on 17th February 2013, Yaacov Ben Efrat of Israel’s Daam Party remarked that: ‘When Obama reaches P[alestinian] A[uthority] territory, he will see that his policy of appeasing the Israeli right has nearly killed the PA’. Obama has already been burned by the Palestinian issue and won’t want to take up the challenge again. Obama may utter some vague, uplifting phrases about peace, but offer no practical means to achieve it.

Ben Efrat also wrote that: ‘it will not be long until the unrest in the West Bank becomes palpable to the Israeli public on its side of the wall’. In the last few days, that is precisely what has happened, with Palestinian protests over the prisoners’ hunger strike, the death in custody of Arafat Jaradat, and the flare of up the regular clashes with violent, armed settlers, as explained by Noam Sheizaf in the +972 blog. The sidelining of peace, of the daily travails of the occupation for Palestinians, of the routine violence of extremist settlers and the institutionalised violence of the Israeli occupation forces and the settlement process, from Obama’s visit agenda may be overtaken by events. Precisely because of the expectations raised by a presidential visit, Palestinian protestors have good reason to show that they have not gone away, that their frustrations have not dissipated, that occupation is the burning issue, that peace is urgent. Interviewed on Israel Channel 2 news on 24th February 2013 about the unrest, PA official Jibril Rajoub called on Israel to make a clear choice – for peace and security, or settlements and annexation. ‘Don’t expect us to come with a white flag’, he said, ‘We are a people living, existing under a cruel, racist occupation for 46 years, which brings shame on Jewish history. Enough! Enough! Enough!’ There is nothing Obama could say to the Israeli who want to hear from him that is clearer about the need to end the occupation and move to peace than that.