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How Obama learned to love Israel
Obama will not cut the Palestinian knot nor change US policy on Lanka

The title should have read ‘Gordian knot in Palestine’ instead of ‘Palestinian knot’ to show how learned I am in Greek mythology, but it’s too convoluted. Conditions in Palestine are utterly intractable and the violence in the Gaza Strip a made in Israel abomination, (irrespective of whether a ceasefire is in place when you read these lines). Only some extraordinary turn in American policy will make a difference and the Obama Administration will do no such thing. Obama’s silence is deafening! He who railed against Bombay terrorism a few weeks ago has unexpectedly discovered that "there is only one president at a time" – somebody must have lent him a copy of the constitution. I was, and am glad of his election, for what it symbolizes, and he is intelligent and intellectual; but perish naïve illusions that he will step ‘out of bounds’. Obama is the prisoner of his own campaign and in hock to American wealth and internal politics; he is custodian of American foreign policy, as inherited, not necessarily as it should be, even to best serve America’s own interests.

Learning to love Israel and cash

There are many recitations of the same story so let me pick one. It comes from Ali Abunimah who has dealt with Obama on this issue, according to whose account the young activist Obama held progressive views on the Palestine question in the 1990s. But he began to see a changed man who realised that being critical of Israel is not good for political ambition in the US. Abunimah’s website (http://electronicintifada) gives this summary:

"Over the years since I first saw Obama speak I met him about half a dozen times, often at Palestinian and Arab-American community events in Chicago including a May 1998 community fundraiser at which Edward Said was the keynote speaker. In 2000, when Obama unsuccessfully ran for Congress I heard him speak at a campaign fundraiser hosted by a University of Chicago professor. On that occasion and others Obama was forthright in his criticism of US policy and his call for an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

"The last time I spoke to Obama was in the winter of 2004 at a gathering in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighbourhood. He was in the midst of a primary campaign to secure the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate seat he now occupies. But at that time polls showed him trailing. As he came in from the cold and took off his coat, I went up to greet him. He responded warmly, and volunteered, "Hey, I’m sorry I haven’t said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I’m hoping when things calm down I can be more up front." He referred to my activism, including columns I was contributing to the The Chicago Tribune critical of Israeli and US policy, "Keep up the good work!"

"But Obama’s gradual shift into the AIPAC camp had begun as early as 2002 as he planned his move from small time Illinois politics to the national scene. In 2003, Forward reported on how he had "been courting the pro-Israel constituency." He co-sponsored an amendment to the Illinois Pension Code allowing the state of Illinois to lend money to the Israeli government. Among his early backers was Penny Pritzker — now his national campaign finance chair — scion of the liberal but staunchly Zionist family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain. (The Hyatt Regency hotel on Mount Scopus was built on land forcibly expropriated from Palestinian owners after Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967)".

The AIPC talk

Obama’s speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on June 4, 2008 during his drive for the Democratic nomination when he had to outmanoeuvre another anti-Palestinian hawk, Hilary Clinton, represents the nadir of his political opportunism. He ingratiated himself by starting off thus;

"I want you to know that today I’ll be speaking from my heart, and as a true friend of Israel. And I know that when I visit with AIPAC, I am among friends. Good friends; friends who share my strong commitment to make sure that the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable today, tomorrow and forever."

And in the course of his statement, without uttering a word of compassion for the misery of the people of Palestine, or noticing F-16 fighters, white phosphorous bombs, killer bullets and economic strangulation, he experienced this beautiful vision.

"I saw a narrow and beautiful strip of land nestled against the Mediterranean. On the ground, I met a family who saw their house destroyed by a Katyusha rocket. I spoke to Israeli troops who faced daily threats as they maintained security near the blue line. I talked to people who wanted nothing more simple, or elusive, than a secure future for their children."

But no fear, it was not all sugar and sentimentality; there was promise of plenty of muscle which earned Obama a standing ovation from the gathered Israeli lobby.

"Our alliance is based on shared interests and shared values. Those who threaten Israel threaten us. Israel has always faced these threats on the front lines. And I will bring to the White House an unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security."

"The threats to Israel start close to home, but they don’t end there. Syria continues its support for terror and meddling in Lebanon. And Syria has taken dangerous steps in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, which is why Israeli action was justified to end that threat. There is no greater threat to Israel - or to the peace and stability of the region - than Iran. The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. It pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists. Its president denies the Holocaust and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat."

Barack Hussein Obama is a prisoner of these commitments. How did he land himself in this predicament? The answer is American Jewish money and political influence that can decide an election. What does this imply for other hopefuls?

Tamil daydreams

Abunimah explains Obama’s shift of policy as follows, and he is not moralistic either; he comments that if the Arab-American lobby wants to influence policy it must come up with similar muscle.

"His decisive trajectory reinforces a lesson that politically weak constituencies have learned many times: access to people with power alone does not translate into influence over policy. Money and votes, but especially money, channelled through sophisticated and coordinated networks that can "bundle" small donations into million dollar chunks is what buys influence on policy. Currently, advocates of Palestinian rights are very far from having such networks at their disposal. Unless they go out and do the hard work to build them, or to support meaningful campaign finance reform, whispering in the ears of politicians will have little impact".

The Tamil diaspora has visions of Washington taking a more even-handed approach after Obama’s inauguration on January 20th. Projecting Abunimah’s thesis to the Tamil case, their prospects are gloomy. The question is ‘what kind of bucks and votes can they raise in relation to Obama’s $100 million electoral treasure chest?’ International Tamil organisations have petitioned Obama to intervene in the worsening humanitarian tragedy and to extend a fairer approach to the Tamil political cause. Model private indictments pressing the US Attorney General’s Department to act against Defence Secretary Rajapakse and Army Commander Fonseka for human rights violations have also been prepared. But if the Obama Administration’s allegiance to existing American foreign policy in the Middle East is a guide, it is unlikely that these efforts will bear fruit. Washington’s Lanka policy is guided by the twin objectives of ensuring the stability of the state, (whether led by a Mahinda or Ranil governments) and compatibility with New Delhi; neither count is comforting for the Tamils at this time.

The LTTE committed itself to a single minded pursuit of an exclusively militarist strategy; it follows that success must be judged by the battlefield achievements. It has had its moments of glory but the last 18 months have witnessed a string of defeats and now a possible rout. Though no LTTEer, I have often argued that, at this stage in history, a defeat of the LTTE will mean no constitutional or political concessions, no devolution and a continuing impasse on the national question. I now reiterate this position; the Tamils are in for a hard time in the next period, they can expect nothing from a victorious chauvinist state.

Tamils have come full circle round after 60 years. Thirty years devoted exclusively to hidebound bourgeois parliamentary politics, followed by another thirty years of almost exclusive armed struggle, both times spurning left, socialist and democratic struggles elsewhere in the country. The LTTE’s strategy of pure militarism has ended in the isolation of the Tamils, locally and internationally. Tamil nationalism now has to ask itself what went wrong and what alliances it needs. Karalasingham, when he was still a fine Marxist, was wont to say, "The Tamil speaking people cannot solve their problems except in an alliance with the struggles of the working peoples". How right he was!

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