Obama's ambiguity: What it reveals about Mideast 'peace'
Sons are not responsible for the racism of their fathers. But they do have a responsibility to let others know that they disagree vehemently with such sentiments. This is certainly the case for individuals in public service, particularly the man President-elect Barack Obama has chosen as White House chief of staff. Yet, Rep. Rahm Emanuel has not said a word regarding the troubling statement his father made to the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv. In a recent interview, Dr. Benjamin Emanuel asserted that his son's appointment would be beneficial to Israel. "Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel," the elder Emanuel said, according to the Jerusalem Post. "Why wouldn't he be? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors of the White House."
The public has a right to expect Mr. Emanuel to reject such raw racism especially given the historic resonance of Mr. Obama's victory. It's especially important for Arab and Muslim Americans who came through the election campaign feeling they are the last group of Americans who can still be publicly denigrated.
Mr. Emanuel - whose father fought with the Irgun, the pre-state Jewish militia that carried out terrorist attacks on Palestinians and the British in the 1940s - has a hawkishly pro-Israel record. He has never publicly distanced himself from his father's contribution to the dispossession of more than 750,000 Palestinians, nor criticized Israel's frequent attacks on Palestinian communities that have killed and maimed thousands of civilians.
In June 2003, Mr. Emanuel signed a letter criticizing President Bush for being insufficiently supportive of Israel. "We were deeply dismayed to hear your criticism of Israel for fighting acts of terror," Mr. Emanuel, along with 33 other Democrats, wrote to Mr. Bush. The letter asserted that Israel's policy of assassinating Palestinian political leaders "was clearly justified as an application of Israel's right to self-defense." Such killings violate the Geneva Conventions, and the State Department's human-rights report specified that there were more civilian bystanders killed in Israeli assassination attempts than actual targets in 2003.
For Palestinians, long experience suggests that no matter who occupies the White House, their rights and aspirations will always be a distant second to Israel's preferences. The U.S. role as an "honest broker" is in tatters, not just because of Mr. Bush's legacy, but also because the Clinton administration acted, during years of peace negotiations, as "Israel's lawyer," as Aaron David Miller, a former top State Department official, memorably admitted.
Previously, Mr. Obama was more open to hearing different viewpoints and expressed understanding for the plight of Palestinians under Israeli military occupation. Many still remember his statement in Iowa: "Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people." He later hedged, however, asserting it was the Palestinians' own leadership, rather than Israel's, at fault. Such ambiguity has fueled wild speculation about Mr. Obama's pro-Israel bona fides.
Picking Mr. Emanuel may be intended to shore up those credentials, but is hardly Mr. Obama's first indication that he will embrace hawkish supporters of Israel. His speech to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, just after he won his party's presidential nomination in June, angered people across the Arab world for embracing Israel's exclusive claims to Jerusalem and for its one-sided criticism of Palestinians.
On a highly symbolic visit in July, Mr. Obama spent almost all his time meeting Israelis and less than an hour with Palestinians. Palestinians were further dismayed by Mr. Obama's support for Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. Mr. Obama's recent outlook would be less worrying if it included efforts to hear the widest range of views. But responding to criticism he was insufficiently pro-Israel, Mr. Obama distanced himself from establishment figures holding independent views like former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Malley, a more even-handed figure in President Clinton's Middle East team. And when Sen. John McCain attacked Mr. Obama for associating with a mainstream Palestinian-American Columbia University professor, Mr. Obama failed to defend his right to consult with whomever he pleases on a critical, if divisive, issue.
Palestinians watching these developments are concerned that Mr. Obama will surround himself with pro-Israel veterans - such as Dennis Ross, who long headed the peace process for President Clinton - who will push for the familiar one-sided policies that allowed Israel to expand its settlements and wall Palestinians off in impoverished, isolated ghettos.
The fundamental change that Mr. Obama promised would mean viewing Israelis and Palestinians as equally deserving of rights and security, something the U.S. has never done in practice.
Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisor, stressed recently on CNN the importance of getting started early on Israeli-Palestinian peace. Mr. Scowcroft noted that "we have removed ... with this election a lot of that sense of injustice in this country. We ought to try to do it in the Middle East." He's right.
But with Mr. Obama tapping Mr. Emanuel to be his gatekeeper, injustice in the Middle East seems more apt to go unaddressed than it did election night.
Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and a fellow at the Palestine Center. These are his personal views.