President Obama’s promise to veto the Palestinian bid for United Nations membership this week was as predictable as it was despicable. Nobody pretends that Security Council recognition can bring tangible relief from the humiliation of life under occupation – still less anything like ‘a lasting peace’ – but even if its significance were to be chiefly ‘symbolic’ (the journalistic mot du jour), that doesn’t seem good reason in itself to oppose it. To recognise the right of Palestinians to a sovereign state on the territories captured from them in 1967 would be a first step in redressing the defining injustice of the post-WWII era, as well as restoring a modicum of dignity to a people who for three generations have known only betrayal and abuse. It would, in other words, have been a matter of elementary moral principle. But if Obama has shown one trait since assuming the Presidency it is an appalling lack of principle. He’s already used his veto, after all, to kill a Security Council resolution merely condemning settlement construction – this despite his saying in Cairo in 2009 that, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”. When Netanyahu refused to extend a 90-day pause in the expropriation of Palestinian land - a pause that was anyway never honoured to begin with – Obama didn’t just fail to punish him. He spinelessly arranged, along with his promiscuously unprincipled Secretary of State, for a sordid bribe of $3 billion to be slipped inside Netanyahu’s palm, only to have the spoilt brat slam the door in his face. Apparently not yet insulted enough, in his most recent speech on the Middle East in May of this year, Obama became the first American president to publicly refer to Israel as a “Jewish state”, thus simultaneously erasing what the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé called the ‘forgotten Palestinians’ - the 1.2 million Arab citizens of Israel itself - as well as undermining the Israeli moderate majority who understand that a “Jewish state” cannot also be a democratic one, and who have every intention of living in the latter as opposed to the former. He has, in short, presided over the most ardently Zionist American administration on either side of the aisle in recent history (who now remembers a furious George H. W. Bush withholding $10 billion in loan guarantees from the Irgun thug Yitzhak Shamir in response to renewed settlement expansion?).
As a Westerner living in the Arab world, the question I get asked perhaps more than any other when the subject of Israel comes up is why – why does the American government continue to so unshakeably and unashamedly stand by a regime that colonises its neighbours’ lands and persecutes its ethnic minorities and has a consistent and meticulously-documented record of launching merciless assaults on civilian infrastructure both inside and outside its borders that often, if not always, implicate it in war crimes and crimes against humanity? As resolutely as one must combat all stupid and loathsome innuendo about clandestine ‘Jewish cabals’ usurping world government, for every answer I suggest to them (historic Cold War alliance; supposed shared ‘Judeo-Christian values’; common Islamist enemy; mistaken view of Israel as democracy; misplaced belief in Israeli ‘purity of arms’; etc.) it remains a simple fact that a well-financed and well-organised group of Israel’s supporters continues to command substantial influence over American policy. The Israel Lobby (it’s emphatically not the ‘Jewish lobby’, since a sizeable chunk of its constituents are in fact messianic Christians, who see in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine a portent of the Second Coming of Christ) doesn’t have quite the stranglehold on the Pentagon imagined by some of its critics – for instance, in their 2007 book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt write that for “fifteen years, Israel and the lobby have pushed the United States to [use] military force to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities” (p. 282), and yet it was not to Iran but Iraq that the Bush administration turned its guns when the ‘war on terror’ was declared – but at least so far as the Holy Land is concerned, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its affiliates are capable of making life very difficult for anyone in Washington who takes a line other than their own (see, for example, this piece by MJ Rosenberg, the foreign policy writer who has worked for both AIPAC and the US Senate). Put simply, the strategic benefits of siding with ‘the lobby’ are many, while the costs are as good as nil.
Which raises the question of why there is no equal and opposite ‘Arab lobby’ feared and revered in the same way. After all, the application of Arab ‘leverage’ on Washington is not without historical precedent. In 1973, after the Nixon administration bolstered the Israeli military during the October War, the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries placed an oil embargo on the USA and implemented production cuts that swiftly quadrupled the global crude price and ended up costing America “some $48.5 billion in 1974 alone (equal to roughly $140 billion in 2000 prices), due to higher petroleum costs and an estimated 2 percent reduction in GDP” (Mearsheimer and Walt, p. 54).
The embargo was eventually called off (at the request of Anwar Sadat), but its effects were sufficiently punitive that, nine years later, the mere threat of its resumption was enough to prompt action. In Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation, he describes how, when it became apparent that Israel’s steamrolling of Lebanon in 1982 was to be taken as far as Beirut,
King Fahd of Saudi Arabia warned that his country would withdraw all its investments from the United States at once and impose oil sanctions against the West within hours if the Israeli army was not brought under control. Reagan was at last made aware of the gravity of the crisis and Haig – who has always denied that he gave Israel a ‘green light’ – resigned. (pp. 268-29)
Sure enough, a ceasefire was obtained - even if, in the end, Reagan was unable to prevent Menachim Begin from his carpet bombing of Beirut.
Next year, Obama will seek re-election in a contest that everybody agrees will be decided by economic credentials. If Saudi – or any of the oleaginous Gulf states, for that matter – had any interest in securing a Palestinian state at the UN, mightn’t they seek to exploit this nontrivial fact? Brent Crude prices have already breached the $100 mark again for the first time since the vertiginous days of 2008. Isn’t it possible that the prospect of a nudge in the upward direction might give Obama some pause for thought? Even if it’s true that the ‘oil weapon’ would no longer be as destructive today as it was in ’73, there are other potential arrows in the Arab quiver. How keen would Obama be, for example, on Saudi dumping its nearly $500 billion holdings of US debt two months after the country lost its AAA credit rating? To what extent would he be pleased to hear that, say, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, whose assets have been conservatively estimated at $340 billion, was exiting its American real estate and equity positions (including the 5% of Citigroup it generously bought at the height of the credit crisis) to pursue new opportunities in, I don’t know, China?
As it happens, some influential Gulf Arabs have caught on to the simple force of such considerations, and have hinted at a resurgence of the Arab lobby of bygone days. Turki al-Faisal, a Saudi prince and former ambassador to the US, wrote in June in an op-ed in the Washington Post that
In September, the kingdom will use its considerable diplomatic might to support the Palestinians in their quest for international recognition. American leaders have long called Israel an “indispensable” ally. They will soon learn that there are other players in the region — not least the Arab street — who are as, if not more, “indispensable.”
As he elaborated:
There will be disastrous consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state. It would mark a nadir in the decades-long relationship as well as irrevocably damage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and America’s reputation among Arab nations. The ideological distance between the Muslim world and the West in general would widen — and opportunities for friendship and cooperation between the two could vanish.
This was a theme repeated in a New York Times op-ed earlier this month, in which al-Faisal warned that a veto at the UN would mean that
Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with America in the same way it historically has. With most of the Arab world in upheaval, the “special relationship” between Saudi Arabia and the United States would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, who demand justice for the Palestinian people.
How did we get to here? If it’s nauseating to be lectured on “justice” by a senior emissary of a monarchical Wahhabi police state that is itself crushing the democratic aspirations of Bahrainis this very minute (we can be sure that if the Palestinians were Shia, there would be no lofty talk from Riyadh about their “quest” for freedom), then it’s a mark of how contemptible the 2009 Nobel Peace Laureate’s handling of ‘the Conflict’ has been that such an unsavoury character can appear genuinely courageous and principled next to him. For Christ’s sake, you know you’ve lost your way when you make the Saudis look good. Yet as long as Obama continues to consign the ‘peace process’ to the cemetery, it will remain the case that only Gulf Arabs have the power to deliver a Palestinian state. May they do so with all speed.