A New Israeli Government Obama's Only Hope

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There are moments in a columnist's life when he allows himself a glimmer of hope. After the debacle of the Bush years, the election of Barack Obama really seemed as though it could be a new start for relations between the Muslim world and the US - a critical step towards defusing the appeal of jihadism.

Obama's Cairo speech in June 2009, in which he called for an end to the "years of mistrust" between Muslims and Americans, was full of promise and was followed two years later by the uprising we now call the Arab Spring.

Finally, the US had budding democracies in the Middle East to support - George W. Bush's dream come true, and not at the barrel of an American gun.

In Israel-Palestine, the new authorities on the West Bank had become what Bill Clinton described last week as "the finest Palestinian government they've ever had". Obama's close ties to the Jewish community in the US, rooted long ago in Chicago, and his empathy for the Palestinians made him the perfect President for this moment. And, unlike previous presidents, he did not take up this issue in the waning hours of a second term. He grasped it immediately upon taking office.

His speech last week at the UN represents an implosion of all such hopes. Yes, there is a shred of an argument against the UN's recognition of a Palestinian state - and Obama made it well. It is true that no real peace can be achieved without direct Israeli and Palestinian negotiations. The trouble is that as long as Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel's Prime Minister the settlement-building will continue and, because it will continue, talks are going nowhere.

And so Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas felt he had no option but the radical one of appealing directly to the very organisation that sanctioned the division of Israel-Palestine so many decades ago (which the Arabs, one should recall, rejected at the time).

In a battle between the US President and the Israeli Prime Minister, why is it the Prime Minister who has won every battle, even as global opinion is almost unanimously on Obama's side?

The answer, alas, has nothing to do with the actual situation in Israel-Palestine, but rather with domestic politics of both countries. Increasingly fundamentalist and dominated by the settler lobby and new immigrants from former Soviet lands, today's Israel is no longer the secular leftie democracy it started as.

Withdrawing from Lebanon and Gaza only to be greeted with rockets has shifted Israeli opinion to a more intransigent position. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman would be regarded as a neo-fascist in any other Western country. And any compromise on the settlements would trigger the government's fall.

The prospects for a two-state solution have been scuppered by US politics, too. Jewish Democratic donors and voters had threatened to bolt if Obama kept the pressure up on Israel. Most of these Democrats support Obama's position on a two-state solution, but still regard any sort of leaning on the Jewish state as anti-Semitic. Their acquiescence to the colonisation of the West Bank is one more sign that ethnic politics trumps principle in much of US politics. (Think of how the Cuban-American lobby has made a farce out of US-Cuba relations or how Irish-Americans perpetuated the conflict in Northern Ireland.)

A recent by-election in New York was dominated by orthodox Jews who voted Republican in part to protest about any daylight between the US and Israel's government. And congress itself - which controls such matters as aid - is in lockstep behind the Israeli government.

But the Israel lobby is increasingly marginal to the US relationship with the Jewish state. It has money and clout among the Democrats, but it has relatively few voters. What is vital is the Christian Right's new embrace of Israel as part of a global Judaeo-Christian alliance against Islam. Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee have both openly supported more aggressive settlement of the West Bank - because they believe an influx of Jews to the Holy Land is a precursor to the "end times" that no Christian should prevent.

Last week, at an extraordinary press conference, Republican frontrunner Rick Perry stood proudly among the leaders of the settler movement and said: "I also, as a Christian, have a clear directive to support Israel, so from my perspective it's pretty easy."

The facts on the ground, the policies of the Israeli government and the shifts in the Arab world are all irrelevant to Perry and the base of his party. The "directive" to back any Israeli government in anything it chooses is divinely ordained. A June poll of US evangelicals found nearly half believe the establishment of the state of Israel was a crucial step on the path to Jesus's second coming. Many cite Genesis. "And I will bless them that bless (Israel), and curse him that curseth (Israel)" - and, to them, biblical Israel includes Judaea and Samaria: that is, the West Bank. Their faith commands them to back the settlements as powerfully as it does the settlers themselves.

This is the domestic pincer movement that killed Obama's promise. With Democrats terrified of losing donors and Republicans engaged in pure theology-as-national-security, we're lucky that Obama has had the guts - or naivety - to hang in there at all.

His only chance now is a second term and a different Israeli government, by which time we could be in the midst of another intifada, the Arab democracies could have ended peace deals with Israel and the US could have lost crucial allies in the region, along with global credibility.

Of course, compared with a Perry presidency, in which the US might eagerly support an Israeli attack on Iran as part of a Judaeo-Christian religious alliance against Islam, that would be an impasse devoutly to be wished. So much for a columnist's hopes. I really should have known better.

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