President Obama’s UN Speech and its Critics
By Prof Lawrence Davidson
Part I – The Speech
On 21 September 2011 President Obama delivered his latest message to the United Nations: "I would like to talk to you about a subject that is at the heart of the United Nations – the pursuit of peace in an imperfect world." Actually, one of the things that make the world imperfect is the lopsided power distribution at the UN. This allows the permanent members of the Security Council (particularly the US) to decide when peace does or does not get pursued. But Obama did not call attention to this problem. Instead he pointed to Libya and the alleged achievement of freedom, security and peace in that North African land. Actually, what Libya amounted to, at least in part, was the destruction of a nation with a standard of living approaching that of Spain. This happened not because it was ruled by "the world’s longest serving dictator," but because that particular dictator had a forty year record of being an incredible pain in the rear end of the Western ruling elites. Be that as it may, Obama was stuck with the conundrum that the people of Libya (and Tunisia and Egypt and maybe Yemen and Syria but, of course, not Bahrain) deserve self-determination and peace, while the Palestinians are apparently still out in the cold. Obama explained that "I believe…that the Palestine people deserve a state of their own." However, they only can have it if they follow a course which, over the last 20 years, has proved utterly bankrupt. Indeed, Obama saved his most emphatic language for the moment when he insisted that bankruptcy is the only way to national success for the Palestinians: "Ultimately it is the Israelis and the Palestinians – not us – who must reach agreement…that is and will be the path to a Palestinian state. " Very odd. The president tells us that the Washington won’t dictate national self-determination, but it damn well can dictate the route the Palestinians must take to get it. Even if that route has proven worthless and will, most likely, lead them to their ultimate destruction.
Part II – Two Critics
Robert Fisk, the famous reporter for the British newspaper The Independent, wrote a scathing report on President Obama’s speech. Here is part of what he said, "After praising the Arab Spring…the man [Obama] dared to give the Palestinians 10 minutes of his time, slapping them in the face for daring to demand statehood from the UN. Obama even–and this is the funniest part his preposterous address to the UN–suggested that the Palestinians and the Israelis were two equal "parties" to the conflict."
Fisk is angry and frustrated and one can only empathize with those feelings. But his piece leaves a lot unexplained. So let us look at Uri Avnery, founder and leader of Israel’s Gush Shalom peace movement, who commented on the speech this way, "A wonderful speech. A beautiful speech. The language expressive and elegant. The arguments clear and convincing. The delivery flawless. A work of art. The art of hypocrisy. Almost every statement in the passage concerning the Israeli-Palestinian issue was a lie. A blatant lie: the speaker knew it and so did the audience….Being a moral person, he [Obama] must have felt the urge to vomit. Being a pragmatic person, he knew that he had to do it if he wanted to be re-elected."
Part III – Clarifications
Now that is more to the point. Avnery tells us why Obama was lying. Because in a land of the deceived, only really good liars get…..what? Get elected and then re-elected? Well that is probably true. However, in this particular case things are a bit more complicated. This might sound a bit shocking but, taken literally, Avnery is inaccurate. You can be critical of Israel and even sympathetic to the Palestinians and still, at least potentially, get elected to office in the United States. Consider a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. It indicates that 42% of Americans are in favor of US recognition of Palestinian statehood as against 26 % opposed. 32% had no opinion. That means that a energetic and savvy politician running for national office, who is also publically in favor of Palestinian statehood, would have a pool of 74% of American voters to work on. The numbers are even more impressive when considering only Democratic voters. There 54% are in favor of Palestinian statehood and only 14% opposed. These are telling numbers for a politician with pro-Palestinian sympathies– if the voters are really the end game here.
Unfortunately, they are not. Voters are only important at the actual time of election. At all other times the politicians’ constituencies are special interest groups. It is the special interests that supply the resources the politicians actually use to manipulate the voters at election time. The political parties know this very well. They know that what political suicide actually consists of is putting forth a candidate that displeases the special interests. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, 95% of the time both Democrat and Republican parties won’t even nominate a candidate who expresses opinions favorable to the Palestinians. Therefore, such candidates hardly ever reach the voters. So, it is not quite as Avnery puts it, that Obama speaks lies so as to be re-elected. More accurately, he speaks lies so he can be re-nominated. There is no politician in America capable of getting a presidential nomination who could or would have made a speech more sympathetic to the Palestinians than the one given by Barack Obama.
Part IV – Conclusion
The conclusion one can draw is that on the issue of the Isreali-Palestinian conflict, public opinion presently has no leverage. And, for it ever to actually have leverage, it must reach a point where it overwhelms the standard factors of special interest influence: giving campaign funding to a candidate or choosing to give it to his or her opponent; generating lots of TV air time in favor of the candidate or creating negative attack ads against him or her; and the overall control of the information on the subject of interest to the special interest that goes to the candidates and their staff. In other words, unless you can get the public riled up on this subject to the point where millions see it as a voting issue, politicians and their party leaders won’t respond to polls such as that recently put out by Pew. Such information simply does not indicate a level of public focus that will sway the party choices of candidates at the nomination level.
To make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a voting issue within the American political milieu is a tough goal, but it is not an impossible one. A growing number of local and national organizations are already engaged in this effort seeking to change public attitudes to the point that American voters will react to Israeli behavior as they once reacted to apartheid South Africa’s policies. To name just three, there are the US Campaign Against the Occupation, the Council on the National Interest, and Jewish Voices for Peace. Many others are active as well. In Europe, the effort to build public opinion to the point that it has voting leverage is also going on apace.
About ten years ago I had a heated conversation with the Charge d’affaires of the US embassy in Israel. He told me that if I believed that the US Congress could be freed from the influence of the Zionist lobby I was crazy. "It will never happen" he told me. I disagreed with that sentiment then, and still do today. The Pew Poll numbers show that there is fertile ground for an eventual sea change in popular opinion. And, with a lot of hard grass roots work, that change will have a powerful political impact. One must never say never.