UNITED NATIONS - When Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic candidate for the November U.S. presidential elections, addressed one of the most influential pro-Israeli lobbying groups last week, he offered himself as a more trusted ally of Israel than his rival, Republican candidate John McCain.
In his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Obama promised Israel 30 billion dollars in U.S. aid over the next decade (adding to the 140 billion dollars it has received so far), and even justified the recent Israeli attack on a supposed Syrian nuclear plant (an attack in total violation of that country's national sovereignty).
And in his eagerness to woo Jewish votes, Obama crossed more than one line in the Middle Eastern sand: he even vowed to protect an "undivided" Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
The Jerusalem pledge drew furious denunciations from Palestinians -- on the very day that U.S. President George W. Bush, an avowed friend of Israel, announced he was suspending a proposed move to shift the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Obama tried to pacify the Palestinians by pledging "to help Israel achieve the goal of two states", a Jewish and Palestinian state.
Was Obama playing up to a pro-Israeli audience (which gave him 13 standing ovations), or was it the usual rhetoric of a U.S. politician on the campaign trail?
"Much has been made of Obama's recent shameless and altogether unseemly groveling at the AIPAC convention, making a series of statements that are anachronistic and extreme even by the standards of contemporary mainstream Israeli political discourse," Mouin Rabbani, contributing editor to the Washington-based Middle East Report, told IPS.
No doubt Obama is insistent on demonstrating that he will be as faithful and dependable a "shabbes goy" as his predecessors and rivals, he added. "But I think most commentary on this issue misses the point. Obama has not done an about-face."
Sure, he has some "indiscretions" from early in his political career where he indicated that Palestinians have some legitimate rights -- "and even went to the extreme of permitting the daughter of a Palestinian professor (Rashid Khalidi) to babysit his kids, and himself having dinner with the 'professor of terror' (the late Edward W. Said, professor at Columbia University)," Rabbani said.
"But I have seen no evidence that in recent years, including those before the announcement of his presidential campaign, that he has advocated a serious reconsideration of U.S. policy towards the conflict outside the framework developed in the (former U.S. President Bill) Clinton years," he added.
Responding to the Obama speech, even Mahmoud Abbas, president of the U.S.-backed Palestinian authority, was outraged enough to protest Obama's promise to hand over an undivided Jerusalem to the Israelis.
As Abbas pointed out: "The whole world knows that East Jerusalem, holy Jerusalem, was occupied (by the Israelis) in 1967.And we will not accept a Palestinian state without having Jerusalem as the capital," he added.
Less than 72 hours later, and facing criticism from Palestinians, Obama backtracked on his statement on Jerusalem. In an interview with Cable News Network (CNN), Obama said: "Well, it's going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations."
Nadia Hijab, senior fellow and co-director at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington, told IPS that U.S. politicians respond to the strength of diverse interest groups and "Obama is no exception".
"So the question is not whether we expect Obama to be even-handed because it is the right thing to do, but whether enough pressure can be brought to bear on him to make him do so," she added.
"Currently AIPAC and its American Jewish and Christian Zionist allies are the strongest U.S. pressure groups when it comes to Israel, and politicians toe the line -- even if they have previously expressed some sympathy to the Palestinian cause (Obama, Hillary Clinton) or pragmatic approaches (McCain after the election of Hamas)."
However, Hijab added, AIPAC's stranglehold is being challenged by diverse groups: Palestinian and Arab Americans; liberal as well as non-Zionist American Jews; and U.S. "realists" like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, co-authors of 'The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy'.
During the recent commemorations of Israel's 60th anniversary, she said, the Palestinian narrative was heard in the United States louder than ever before in the mainstream media.
New Jewish organisations -- such as J-Street, the U.S. office of the Israeli human rights organisation Btselem, and Jewish Voice for Peace -- are being established to push for peace in a way that recognises Palestinian rights,
"The realists are refusing to be silenced. If these trends get stronger, then -- and only then -- will we see a shift in Obama's stance," she declared.
Rabbani pointed out that as a general observation, the ability of individual U.S. presidents to influence, let alone reverse, policy on important (as opposed to marginal) issues is rather limited due to a powerful combination of institutional, political, economic and other constraints.
This applies to both domestic and foreign policies. U.S. policy towards China is a good example: every new president campaigns -- most recently Bush and before him Clinton -- on a platform of reading Beijing the riot act about all and sundry abuses, and within months of assuming office learns to treat China like the valued partner that it is.
"Very quickly, human rights abuses become phenomena that only exist in weak or hostile regimes like Iran, Zimbabwe and so on," Rabbani said.
So even under the very best of circumstances -- which is assuming that Obama is genuinely committed to pursuing policies that are even-handed vis-a-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict -- this would not happen.
"At most, there would be some changes at the margin, pushing the policy a bit more this or that way without transforming its fundamentals," Rabbani said. After all, what would an even-handed policy look like?
It would, for example, encompass making U.S. military aid to Israel dependent on Israel using such weapons in accordance with existing U.S. legislation (such as cluster bombs); it would entail U.S. re-classification of Israeli maintenance and continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank as grave breaches of the IV Geneva Convention (with the requisite accountability) rather than an unhelpful inconvenience that might, or might not, affect the atmosphere at the next round of scheduled, utterly meaningless, Israeli-Palestinian talks, and so on, he said.
Rabbani also said it would require a transformation of Washington's relations with the various parties, including a termination of U.S.-guaranteed Israeli impunity in the occupied territories, and holding Israel and its Arab adversaries to the same standards.
"The prospects of any of this happening -- i.e. pursuing a policy of genuine even-handedness -- are simply nil," he added.
Since the 1970s, he pointed out, it has become a commonplace to characterise every outgoing U.S. president as "the most pro-Israeli president in American history".
It has also been a truism, with U.S. presidents generally behaving in ways that are more pro-Israeli than Israel itself, particularly during election campaigns.
"I have every confidence this will be equally true of a potential Obama administration. I don't think personal factors will have a significant influence, but to the extent they do his determination to prove he is not a Muslim (rather than denounce this ethnic baiting), to live down his former dinner engagements etc, will only add to this."
Simply stated, Rabbani said, "Obama should be seen for what he is -- a thoroughly conventional American politician who has every intention of becoming a thoroughly mainstream American president."
© 2008 Inter Press Service