The hope invested by many in Barack Obama has dissolved. Dare I sing ‘I told you so’? I do. The audacious hope of Obamamania was always faith-based, founded on the believer’s premise that the handsome candidate didn’t mean what he actually said, that we should read his words esoterically, as code for profound radicalism. Now reality bites, and we discover that his promises to AIPAC and the military were solid and literal.
It’s certainly something that a black man has become president of a country built by African slaves, although we must place this in the context of the fierce racist backlash since his election (would those guardians of the constitution raving about the tree of liberty being watered by the blood of tyrants be quite so eager to wear their guns on their sleeves if the president were white and not a jumped-up negro? I doubt it). But that’s the achievement of Obama’s skin colour, not his policy; in fact it’s the achievement of the people who voted for him. Another achievement is that – in the company of war criminals such as Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Henry Kissinger – Obama has already won the Nobel peace prize. Hooray!
But let’s get back to reality, the reality of blood and tears as suffered in the arc of American-led or funded conflict. As promised, Obama has escalated the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan and put no pressure at all on apartheid Israel as it gobbles up the few remaining slivers of Palestine. His address to the Muslims in Cairo was sweeter in tone than what we had become accustomed to, but remained an offensive imperialist lecture. He pontificated about hijabs (he called them hajibs) and the education of women, and repeated the Bernard Lewis-Dick Cheney orientalist line about “a self-defeating focus on the past”, instead of addressing American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and backing for assaults on Lebanon and Somalia in the present. He mocked Palestinian resistance and misrepresented the history of black resistance in America while he was about it. He failed entirely to mention the enormous violence meted out to the Palestinians by Zionism. But he won applause for this: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace.”
The applause was undeserved. The key words here are “continued” and “construction.” It quickly became clear that the policy was to call for a freeze on settlement building, but not to dismantle any of the ‘facts on the ground’ illegally established since 1967. In return for the freeze, Palestinians were to give up their right of return to the 78% of their country from which they were ethnically cleansed in 1948. Obama quickly assured Israelis that no pressure would be brought to bear if they refused to freeze settlement construction; and indeed, when Netanyahu said that he might think about freezing a little, but didn’t actually freeze anything, Hillary Clinton praised Israeli flexibility. Dollars and weapons continue to flow to the apartheid state, while mini-kristallnachts continue in Jerusalem. Of course, if the aim were really a two-state solution, Obama would call not for a freeze on new building but for settlers to either be removed from the West Bank and Jerusalem or to agree to live under Palestinian rule. But there won’t be a two-state solution, just the constant theatre of a process towards one.
As this becomes more glaringly evident, Mahmoud Abbas’s collaboration with the occupation becomes ever more impossible to justify. Therefore Abbas has made the dramatic gesture of announcing that he won’t stand for election again. If this is truly the end of him, it’s great news. Saree Makdisi summarises why here. But sadly, it’s probably just more theatrics. Those Israeli and Western leaders who enjoy the ‘peace process’ – which has dispossessed and caged the Palestinians as effectively as any war – make public and private calls for Abbas to reconsider. In a tragic echo of the Arab police states, Fatah-organised demonstrations in Ramallah limply repeat the slogans they’ve been told to repeat, to the tune ‘Come back Abbas.’ But Abbas never went away. His term of office ran out in January while he was suppressing genuine demonstrations in support of Gaza, yet he’s still in his seat. There may never be real elections in Palestine again, and Abbas may heroically refuse to stand in these phantom elections, but he will still consider himself president.
Hemmed in and exhausted, suffering for lack of intelligent leadership, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza seem to have few options. It is certain, however, that any illusions they may have invested in the Oslo process (or the Road Map, or whatever the latest irrelevant formula is) have long ago dissolved. The best that can be hoped for at this stage is an honest admission that this is the case, and the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority whose only purpose is to manage the occupation. More than half of the Palestinian people live as refugees in neighbouring countries. These people need to be brought back into the debate, as do the Palestinian Israelis. Then a new leadership may emerge to demand a one state solution.
The one state already exists. The problem is that it’s an apartheid state, in which half the people are citizens without nationality (the Palestinian Israelis), or residents whose residency can be revoked at any time (east Jerusalem), or subjects of military occupation (the West Bank and Gaza). The Palestinian question is a question of human and civil rights, of equality. Two-state dream talk takes the focus away from this.
But the vast majority of Israeli Jews oppose equal rights for the natives of Palestine, preferring the status quo or some other permutation of the bantustan model. As a result, many liberal ‘realists’ in the West tell the Palestinians they must forget equality in one state. In a typically excellent article, Ali Abunimah points out that until the final years of apartheid in South Africa, the vast majority of South African whites, including many opponents of apartheid, refused to countenance one man – one vote. But minds were changed by the positive vision of an inclusive future offered by the ANC and by an international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions.
A reconstituted PLO to represent all the Palestinians wherever they are and a final abandonment of the two-state illusion would allow for the formulation of an inclusive vision. As for us in the West, the best way to work for justice and peace is BDS. Israel like white South Africa considers itself to be part of the West, and is dependent on the West for trade and political support. It is therefore very vulnerable indeed to the BDS weapon. It is to be hoped that a popular boycott will lead to corporate disenchantment with apartheid, and finally to governmental sanctions.
One of the beauties of BDS is that you can take a small step towards justice each time you go shopping. My mother and I worked gently and steadily on our local grocer until he stopped stocking Israeli produce. Supermarket chains are bigger fish. Any time you’re in you can ask to see the manager. Then very politely, very reasonably, explain why you won’t be buying Israeli goods and why their presence on the shelves is so disturbing. Ask for your comments to be registered and passed upwards. The Co-op is to be congratulated for not stocking produce from West Bank settlements but must be encouraged to extend this ban to all Israeli goods. Morrisons (customer service: 0845 611 6111 / head office: 0845 611 5000) and Waitrose (customer service: 0800 188 884) stock anything Israeli they can, including from settlements. So I phoned Morrisons yesterday and registered my complaint with a flustered lady who said “we’re being subjected to a campaign today.” I said my piece, but worried afterwards about ‘today’. We should be calling them tomorrow, next week and next month too. More ideas and contact information is available here).
Hope is a good thing. More important than Obama is the popular energy unleashed by his electoral campaign. I hope that instead of despairing those whose hopes have been shattered will learn a lesson. The lesson is this: nothing positive can ever come of the empire changing its top face. Power is very clever at theatrics. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be taken in. If we want to make the world a little better we have hard work ahead, not to encourage our neighbours to vote for the bright new guy, but to expose lobbies (like the Zionist lobby) and cultural discourses (like the racism, orientalism, and Christian Zionism which perpetuate Zionist successes), and to encourage our neighbours, markets and business partners to do the right thing.