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An Underdog's Dilemma

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Almost a thousand Palestinian civilians were dead from Israel's recent Blitz on Gaza before Barack Obama interrupted his mantra, that there's only one president at a time, to bemoan what he called a tragedy for both sides. Israel suffered civilian losses, too, after all. Three to be exact. And if Obama, the consummate underdog, didn't seem especially moved by the latest suffering of the clear underdog in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he was merely following a hallowed tradition, started long ago.

By a fellow Democrat.

On M
ay 14, 1948, President Harry Truman recognized Israel against the advice of prominent cabinet members.

His first secretary of state, Edward Stettinius, who was key in forming the United Nations, advocated carefully dividing the land with "a view to the long-range interests of the United States." Before mysteriously falling from the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, the country's first defense secretary, James Forrestal, warned that "no group should be permitted to influence our policy to the point it could endanger our national security." Another state secretary, George Marshall (of Marshall Plan fame), even threatened to vote against the president if he acted prematurely.

But Truman easily won his second-term, six months after recognizing the Jewish state. And to preserve the "special relationship" he initiated, groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have since pressured every president to deprive Palestinians of the very thing he secured for Israel.


Whether this president succumbs to the same pressure remains to be seen, but the picture so far looks as bleak as he did in his first press conference. In a two-part question alluding to earlier remarks by Obama on Iran's nuclear ambitions, reporter Helen Thomas asked the president if he knew of any country in the Middle East that actually did have nukes (an obvious reference to Israel). Obama refused to "speculate" and grew visibly tense when Thomas tried to press him for an answer. He cut her off, and for the remainder of the conference his usually bright smile noticeably dimmed.

No one likes his biases pointed out to him, least of all a president who ran on a promise to reverse the "failed policies" of the past eight years. No action by a president would signal a more clean break with the past than scrapping a tradition of bias toward Israel that has spanned eleven presidents and more than sixty years. But that isn't an action this president is likely to take.

Obama has conspicuously surrounded himself with people who are unabashedly pro-Israel, like his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who once volunteered for the Israeli Defense Forces, and Vice President Joe Biden, who takes pleasure in calling himself a Zionist. More tellingly, Obama attributes terrorism to just one side of the conflict, even sacrificing his pastor to make the point.

It wasn't his preaching "God damn America" that got the Rev. Jeremiah Wright labeled an anti-Semite and thrown under the campaign bus. It was his calling the Israeli occupation at the root of the conflict by its rightful name: "state terrorism." Wright's sin was highlighting what mainstream American media have long obscured. Namely, that terrorism cuts two ways in the conflict, the Hamas way (hand-held rockets, suicide bombers) and the Israeli way (air strikes, white phosphorus, the possible use of experimental weapons like Dense Inert Metal Explosives, or DIME).

Israel says it is fighting a war on terrorism akin to the United States' war against al-Qaeda, but the comparison is weak: Al-Qaeda is a foreign enemy; Palestinians are an occupied people. It also says it doesn't target civilians, unlike Hamas. But the Palestinian death toll speaks volumes to the contrary.

The only thing blocking peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the occupation -- not Hamas, Iran, al-Qaeda, anti-Semitism or any other red herring. By pressing Israel to remove the real obstacle Obama
would help Israel help itself, and also deny groups like al-Qaeda the argument that sustains them: that U.S. Middle East policy is formulated in Tel Aviv.

"We figured out how to put a man on the moon in ten years," Obama said in a campaign commercial touting the benefits of "clean coal." He has a potential eight years to apply the same optimism to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peace in the Middle East would have incalculable benefits, chief among them reducing the threat to
America's security, which would let Obama devote more energy to domestic concerns.

More broadly, it would justify the worldwide outpouring that greeted Obama's victory against amazing odds, the tears serving as a reminder that everyone loves an underdog, especially Americans. But tell that to a Palestinian.

He won't know whether to laugh or cry.
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Salah Obeid is a freelance writer living in Detroit (soon to be France).
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