President-Elect Obama flunks Gaza test

20090108160204310_1Inter Press Service (IPS)
January 6, 2009

CAIRO — With the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip now in its second week — and as the Palestinian death toll approaches 600 — U.S. president-elect Barack Obama has continued to remain silent. Obama’s reticence, say Egyptian commentators, indicates that he will be no more even-handed on the issue of Palestine than preceding U.S. administrations.

“Obama’s silence shows he is just as biased towards Israel as outgoing U.S. President George Bush,” Ibrahim Mansour, political analyst and managing editor-in-chief of independent daily Al-Dustour told IPS. “Like Bush, Obama’s only role in the region will be to implement Israeli directives.”

On Dec. 27, Israel began a series of devastating air strikes on targets throughout the Gaza Strip. On Saturday (Jan. 3), Israel launched a parallel ground offensive, which is currently meeting stiff resistance by Palestinian resistance fighters in strategic areas throughout the territory.

According to Israeli officials, the campaign — which has included thousands of air strikes and naval bombardment — comes in retaliation for rockets fired at Israel by Palestinian resistance factions in the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian death toll has now reached 590, an estimated 40 percent of whom were women and children, while some 2,800 others have been injured. Four Israelis, meanwhile, have been killed by Palestinian rocket fire since the campaign began, while an undetermined number of Israeli soldiers have been killed — with conflicting reports from Israeli military and Palestinian resistance sources — since the launch of the ground offensive.

Despite growing international outrage over Israel’s massively disproportionate use of force against a largely civilian population, Obama has refrained from making public statements on the issue. Some Obama officials have suggested that the president-elect might not comment on events in Gaza until his official inauguration Jan. 20.

“The president-elect is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza,” Obama’s national security spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said in a statement Dec. 28. “There is one president at a time, and we intend to respect that.”

But Egyptian commentators say that Obama’s reluctance to comment on — let alone condemn — Israeli heavy-handedness should come as no surprise.

“The Palestinian cause was never high on Obama’s electoral agenda, which was topped by Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, along with the global financial crisis,” said Mansour. “Besides, any issue that concerns Israel is decided by Israel, not by the U.S. president.”

Last July, during a visit to Israel, Obama disappointed many Arab observers when he expressed overwhelming support for Israel and its methods of dealing with Palestinian “terrorism”.

“I’m here…to reaffirm the special relationship between Israel and the U.S. and my abiding commitment to Israel’s security,” Obama told Israeli President Shimon Peres at the time. He went on to tell Israeli officials of his “unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.”

He also visited the southern Israeli town of Sderot, the occasional target of short-range rockets from the Gaza Strip, where he reaffirmed Israel’s “right to defend itself.” Obama went on to express support for Israel’s refusal to negotiate with Hamas, despite the resistance group’s victory in democratically held Palestinian legislative elections in 2006.

Obama’s overt support for Israel has led many Arab observers to despair of the notion of unbiased arbitration of the conflict by the U.S.

“Like his predecessors in the White House, Obama will never stand against Israel,” Iglal Raafat, political science professor at Cairo University told IPS, echoing a common perception. “He might express his support for the so-called peace process, but only in so far as it benefits Israel.”

Egyptian observers have been further disappointed by a number of Obama’s initial cabinet appointments. Critics point in particular to Hillary Clinton as incoming U.S. secretary of state and Rahm Emanuel as incoming White House chief of staff.

Hillary Clinton made a name for herself as an ardent supporter of Israel during her tenure as New York senator. Last June, Clinton told the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the leading pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., that the next U.S. president “must be ready to say to the world that America’s position (on Israel) is unchanging, our resolve unyielding and our stance non-negotiable.”

Emanuel’s connections to Israel, meanwhile, could not be more direct. A long-time Democratic Party insider, Emanuel is the son of a former member of the Irgun, a militant — some would say terrorist — Zionist group that operated in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s. Along with assassinating Palestinian adversaries, the Irgun also targeted British army personnel and civilians in the lead up to the establishment of Israel in 1948.

“All recent U.S. administrations, be they Democratic or Republican, have shown total support for Israel,” said Mansour. “This is reflected in their choice of cabinet appointments, be they passport-carrying duel citizens of Israel or American Jews loyal to the Jewish state.

“When it comes to the Middle East, Israel sets the U.S. political agenda — whether it be the level of antagonism between Washington and Iran, or the degree of closeness between Washington and its Arab allies,” added Mansour.

Raafat concurred that, in terms of Middle East policy at least, Obama will offer little in the way of real change.

“He might withdraw some troops from Iraq, or show more willingness to negotiate with Syria and Iran, but he won’t do anything that isn’t seen to be in the interests of the U.S.,” she said. “And U.S. and Israeli interests appear to be two sides of the same coin.”

Nor is the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition movement, pinning its hopes on the U.S. president-elect’s vaunted promise of change.

“The Muslim Brotherhood believes real change can only emanate from the people, and not from foreign powers,” Hamdi Hassan, prominent Muslim Brotherhood MP told IPS. “And it can only come when the people are prepared to pay a price for it.”
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President-Elect Obama flunks Gaza test


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