Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Israel’s Decision
In an event in Tel Aviv marking twenty years since the murder of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, former US President Bill Clinton took the stand and delivered a speech to tens of thousands in attendance. President Clinton was the President of the United States at the time Rabin was murdered back in 1995 and he described news of Rabin’s murder as the worst moment in his 8-year tenure.
President Clinton’s speech included the following: “… the next steps will be determined by whether you decide that Rabin was right, that you have to share your future with your neighbors, that you have to stand for peace, that the risk for peace isn’t as severe as the risk of walking away from it. We are praying that you will make the right decision.”
If President Clinton is praying, maybe he should pray a little harder and pray for something different altogether, perhaps a reversal of a decision that has already been made in Israel. Twenty years ago, the Likud, headed by no other than Benjamin Netanyahu the leader of the opposition then, led a venomous incitement campaign against then Prime Minister Rabin for choosing the path of peace. I was a kid in my early teens at that time, but I still remember the Likud-designed posters of Rabin and Peres clad in Nazi uniforms being distributed and hung all over the cities and towns of Israel. It was vicious, it was merciless, and it was life-threatening for those Israeli politicians who chose the path of peace. The Likud-led campaign created an atmosphere of extreme hatred that encouraged Yigal Amir to commit the heinous murder. Many would say that the inflammatory rhetoric of the Likud and the Israeli right-wing parties were as much to blame for Rabin’s murder as was his murderer.
Twenty years after that fateful night, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud are at the helm in Israel, leading Israelis into a dark and destructive path to the future. Twenty years since Rabin’s murder, nothing has changed, no lessons have been learned. In fact, Israeli politics and society have regressed to their lowest point in history, with racism flourishing at unprecedented levels and the occupation becoming the de facto state of affairs. The fact that Netanyahu has been voted into power for the fourth time this past March has proven beyond any doubt that Israel has chosen occupation over peace and has normalized the brutal domination of the Palestinian people rather than liberate itself from becoming a modern-day apartheid state.
When President Clinton addressed the crowd at Rabin Square last night, he assumed that Israel is lost and that it is still pondering which path to choose. The reality is that the decision had already been made, the path had already been chosen over and over and over again, each time with more conviction, each time with less hesitation. It is no wonder that the average Israeli today is a right wing supporter of some sorts and it is no wonder that those who incited against Rabin, those who effectively killed him, are in power today and are stronger than ever before. It is clear where Israel stands and it is too late to pray for its salvation or hope for a change of its chosen course. President Clinton, the time for prayer has passed, Israel is a determined nation.
Two years ago, President Barack Obama did the same thing that President Clinton did last night. When President Obama visited Jerusalem in March 2013, he decided to speak to the future leaders of Israel, university students, instead of address the Israeli Knesset. Many interpreted his choice of audience as a sign that he had given up on Israel’s present day politicians, and that he was attempting to leave a strong impression on its future politicians. After all, those future politicians would go on to play a key role in shaping Israeli politics two years on when national elections were held in March 2015. As per usual, President Obama delivered an exceptional speech which included the following: “The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.” .
President Obama continued and implored the young audience: “Only you can determine what kind of democracy you will have. But remember that as you make these decisions, you will define not simply the future of your relationship with the Palestinians - you will define the future of Israel as well.” President Clinton asked Israelis to decide their country’s fate last night, President Obama had already asked them to do so two years ago. When the Israeli public went to the polls last March, a golden opportunity presented itself to vote Netanyahu out of power and perhaps allow other less-extreme politicians a chance to lead. By the time the elections took place, President Obama’s wise words in front of those university students were long forgotten, and Netanyahu’s venomous, racist outburst, including his infamous “Arabs are voting in droves” comment, trumped every bit of positive advice President Obama had offered the Israeli public.
The fact that two US presidents have decided to encourage Israelis to think hard and decide about their future indicates an implicit acknowledgement of a problem that exists in Israel today. Of course, the reason this acknowledgement remains implicit, is because once it becomes explicit, it will undoubtedly cause both presidents a lot of political damage back home. An explicit acknowledgement of Israel’s misdoings in Obama’s case, will reinforce a notion of anti-Israel sentiment which many Israelis and US Republicans believe he possesses. In Clinton’s case, an explicit acknowledgement at this stage will damage the presidential campaign that his wife Hillary is waging back home. Jimmy Carter, another former US president who is very interested in this part of the world, went explicit in his acknowledgement of Israel’s misdoings. As a consequence for his explicit criticism, he was considered an outcast within the Democratic Party and shunned by many influential politicians in Washington.
As opposed to President Carter’s more direct criticism of Israel, both President Clinton and President Obama resorted to hoping, praying, and pleading with Israelis to choose a more reasonable path for the future. Time and time again, the Israeli public shunned their pleas, refused to answer their prayers, and destroyed their hopes. For us Palestinians, there were no surprises in the recurring choice of the Israeli public. What surprised us was that after each time the Israeli public disappointed and chose the path of occupation and settlement expansion, US presidents returned with yet another plea, another set of prayers, and another long list of hopes. It is as though they believe in a society that does not believe in itself. It is as though they are attempting to resuscitate a victim that has already lost her life. In reality, and for American presidents to be more effective in this part of the world, US politics has to become more action-oriented and less wordy. It is action rather than prayers and hopes that might lead us to a better future.
When Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections back in 2006, the US was at the forefront of punishing the Palestinian people with the cessation of its multi-million dollar aid package to the Palestinian Authority. Along with other members of the Quartet, the US led a decisively action-oriented response to Hamas’s victory; it set a list of conditions for accepting Hamas as a legitimate political party. When the Likud won the most recent elections in March 2015, it ran on a platform that rejected the two-state solution, admitted that the true intention behind settlements was the disruption of natural growth among Palestinian communities, and emphasized the need to control Palestinians for a very long time into the future. Despite all this, the US and the international community did not budge. The US, in particular, continued to provide multi-billion dollar aid packages on a yearly basis to Israel, most of which was military-related and most of which helped further entrench the occupation and control of the Palestinian people. There were no punitive, action-oriented measures in response to Likud’s decisive victory, just some residue hopes and a couple of prayers that Israel will one day come to its senses and choose a better path for itself and its neighbors.
We ask both President Clinton and President Obama, are Israel’s policies of today not worthy of punitive, action-oriented measures? Are these policies not worthy of concrete action rather than inspirational speeches, ambitious wishes, and unrealistic hopes? Is a right-wing Israel that has done nothing to promote peace and that has done everything to entrench the occupation not worthy of a cessation of multi-billion dollars’ worth of aid packages? Why is it that every time the Palestinians were seen as somehow disrupting the course of peace, the US was at the forefront of punishing the Palestinian people, whereas despite the fact that the Israeli government of today is the most racist, most aggressive, and most destructive government in Israel’s history, the US continues to blindly support it? Can you not admit, once and for all, that you cannot nudge Israelis to choose the path of peace, that you cannot beat the phobia-inducing politics of the Likud and right-wind parties in Israel? And once you arrive at this admission, can you not also admit that something has to change within you, within your politics, and not simply within Israel, for things to change to the better?
President Clinton, President Obama, you both know what kind of government is in place in Israel today; a government that is not serious about peace to say the least. If Netanyahu’s numerous comments about the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict are no indication, I am not sure what is. If your policies vis-a-vis Israel continue to be based on wishful thinking and on expired hopes, history will judge you for not taking a stance and forcing Israel to change its course of action. You have given Israel the chance to decide for itself, its decision was loud and clear and it was disappointing for all. Is it not time for you to shepherd Israel to a new way? Is it not true that a shepherd cannot lead his herd without a stick? President Clinton, President Obama, it is time to wield a stick, it is time to wield a stick.