Obama’s Missteps

On his first day as the presumptive Democratic candidate for president earlier this month, Barack Obama committed a serious foreign policy blunder. Reciting a litany of pro-Israeli positions at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), he avowed: “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”

In promising U.S. support of Israel’s claims to all of Jerusalem, Obama couldn’t have picked a better way to offend the world’s 325 million Arabs and 1.5 billion Muslims. Israel’s 41-year stewardship of the Holy City has alarmed Muslims from Morocco to Malaysia. Upon seizing East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel razed the ancient Muslim Maghribi quarter to make room for Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall. Since 1991, Israel has steadily ratcheted down Palestinians’ access to Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. Most West Bank Palestinians can no longer worship there.

Obama’s unnecessary promise deviates from nearly six decades of U.S. foreign policy that held Jerusalem to be occupied territory under international law. This long tradition was first broken in 2004 when President Bush acknowledged Israel’s demands to keep its illegal West Bank settlements in a final peace agreement, including those around Jerusalem. Thus Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer, would both scorn the international legal system’s foundational principle — the inadmissibility of territorial acquisition by war — and echo President Bush, whose failed Middle East policies he has rightly deplored.

If Sen. Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race was a model of courage and nuance, his AIPAC talk was brimming with the pro-Israel orthodoxy that typifies this year’s presidential campaign. Like presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, Obama also backed Israel’s so-called right to exist as a Jewish state.

How has it become an article of faith for U.S. politicians to support a state’s privileging of one ethno-religious group over others? For what Israel seeks in recognition as a Jewish state is permission to permanently discriminate against Palestinians. Israel is, by law, a Jewish state. Its declaration of independence and basic law declare it to be so. But its population, excluding the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is not exclusively Jewish: 20 percent of Israel’s citizens are native Palestinians, and another 4 percent are mostly immigrant non-Jews. Moreover, Jewish demographic predominance was achieved through the expulsion by force or fear of about 750,000 Palestinians in 1948. Israel denies Palestinians refugees — with their offspring, about 5.5 million persons — their internationally recognized right to return to their homes and homeland in order to maintain a strong Jewish majority.

According to Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, 20 Israeli laws explicitly favor Jews. Israel’s law of return, for example, grants rights of automatic citizenship to Jews no matter where they are from, while Palestinian exiles still holding keys to their family homes in Israel are denied this right. Religious parties play pivotal roles in Israeli politics, and Orthodox Jewish rabbinical courts govern matters of family law there.

Why should any American presidential aspirant promote ethno-religious supremacy in Israel? Don’t we see a “Christian state” or a “Muslim state” as inherently discriminatory? Why don’t we recognize the same in Israel’s quest to be ordained a “Jewish state?”

Like Israel, we are a nation that combines a sincere commitment to democracy and a history that includes injustices. While we have never fully atoned for our dispossession of Native Americans, in facing the legacy of slavery, we have made an unyielding pledge to equal rights. A truly visionary American president might respectfully press a similar commitment on Israel, not endorse its urges for ethno-religious privilege. The terrible suffering inflicted on European Jews in the Nazi holocaust does not entitle Israel to subjugate Palestinians.

Barack Obama whiffed in his first major foreign policy speech as the Democratic candidate. He may believe it necessary to pander to Israel’s U.S. supporters in order to gain office. But he narrowed future policy options to those that would undermine international law, offend core American values and diminish our standing in the vital Middle East.

George Bisharat is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East. Read other articles by George, or visit George's website.

14 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Al said on June 18th, 2008 at 9:03pm #

    No one can become the President of the USA, unless he kisses AIPAC’s ass.

    Blame the system, not the man!

  2. Hue Longer said on June 18th, 2008 at 10:23pm #

    Thanks Professor

    Nice and tidy piece –I’ll be directing folks to it

  3. DB said on June 18th, 2008 at 11:22pm #


    “systems” are made by men. And changed by men. By men of character who have the strength of their convictions. Frequently, it requires one to rise above the immediate goals and consequences of one’s actions to make a longer term difference.

    There are also those who say that he needs to play the system to get the presidency, then he can really make a difference. Bending principles for convenience is just hypocricy.

  4. Giorgio said on June 19th, 2008 at 12:22am #

    What really amazes me is to see American politicians delight, openly and for the world to see, prostrate on their knees polish the boots and arse-lick AIPAC and Israel’s minions with such abandon and fervour!

    This speaks volumes about their moral cowardice, unprincipled, unscrupulous and shallowness of character.
    Here is a tiny percentage of the US population calling the shots on a presidential election with uncanny chutzpah!

    Money indeed does TALK, PERVERTS and keeps these servile goyims under control in a vice-like grip on their shorts and curlies….

    Ron Paul IS the only outstanding exception and the only Ray of Hope!

  5. Giorgio said on June 19th, 2008 at 12:39am #

    “Blame the system, not the man!”


  6. Giorgio said on June 19th, 2008 at 2:35am #

    OR seen from another angle,


    And whoever will next occupy the Oval Office, Obama or McCain, the first executive order coming out of there should be to decree a change in the inscription on the dollat note ‘In God we trust’ to ‘In ISRAEL we TRUST’ and forget all about a God who obviously does not reciprocate in His trust.

    Thus, surely, the privately owned Reserve Bank, Israel’s minions, would only be too glad to oblige !

  7. bozhidar balkas said on June 19th, 2008 at 6:33am #

    to me, it is doubtful that obama did not get approval of the state dep’t which runs foreing affairs for the ruling class to declare that jerusalem will be undivided israeli city.
    declaration calls for law breaking. it cannot be called a ” blunder” but willful violation of numerous int’l laws and panhuman rights if carried out.
    as i have said before in my posts in DV, picking on individuals only doesn’t elucidate the sit’n.
    prezs r, to me, mere hired guns/mouths. it is invisible hand that guides, i deduce, all US policies.
    and basic policies in US have not changed an iota.
    as an aside (i’v said this before s’mwhere) invasion/occupation of iraq is a ‘brilliant’ success. it’s the end of history, silly u; ie, history of US will no longer be recorded.
    why wd future writers write it for public? it’l be written by the invisible hand for the invisible hand mainly.
    how do i know this? may i tell u? well, i have a devil of my own. since god is lonely, he loves to talk to the devil; and my devil blabs it to me

  8. Max Shields said on June 19th, 2008 at 8:14am #

    Blame the system not the man? (I think that was Al Capone’s defense.)

    What the hell has Obama done or said that makes anybody, not thoroughly deluded, think that he’s something other than a bought and paid for corporate/AIPAC protege?

    At what time do you turn off your brain and nod to everything Obama says and does?

  9. Glis said on June 19th, 2008 at 4:35pm #

    Can someone explain to me why we care about Israel? They say we need them so that we have a standing in the middle east, but why do we give a shit about the middle east? What good has Israel ever done for us? They drag us into all this crap and what do they have? Nothing! It’s a tiny country with no natural resources, and not even a real country at that. We friggin created it after ww2 as more or less of a refugee camp for jews. It’s been over 50 years, let them figure it out.

    We’re at the point where we spend more money on military operations and donation to Israel than the oil we buy from there. The money we’ve spent on the Iraq war alone could have made us COMPLETELY energy independant 3fold. Why are we over there at all?

  10. hp said on June 19th, 2008 at 7:05pm #


  11. S.M. Bawa said on June 20th, 2008 at 6:48am #

    Obama has also offended few Muslim women in Detroit just because they were wearing hijabs. He didnt want to be photographed with them.
    Full story at : http://worldmonitor.wordpress.com/

  12. dan e said on June 20th, 2008 at 2:40pm #

    I fwdd Dr Bisharat’s article to certain parties I thought might benefit by reading it. But with misgivings about a lot of things Dr. B more or less gratuitously included. So I inserted a cpl “cuibbles” of my own, enclosed in brackets/italicized so as to make clear the words are mine, not Dr B’s. So here I start with a quote, then add comment in brackets: “…Obama committed a serious foreign policy blunder. [by calling it a “blunder” the writer reveals total misapprehension of political reality. This is how petit-bourgeois Palestinian Solidarity efforts wind up complicit in the very status quo they’re supposedly trying to resist. –dan]

    Farther down in the article I found another astoundingly appalling statement, so inserted bracketized comment again. Here’s Dr B:
    “If Sen. Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race was a model of courage and nuance…”
    ( bold added by dan, to emphasize my total rejection of Dr Bisharat’s foolish remark. How a writer can be so right-on articulate about Izzylandia & Obama’s criminal complicity, but the next second reveal such whitified ignorance, is amazing. Not quite “beyond me” however: plenty of experience observing anti-Black racist attitudes among Palestinian-American & “Solidarity” activists…)

    Well, I’ve long admired Dr Bisharat’s writing, also the activist careers of his mother & his father. But it seems that a lot of “overachievers” spend all their time in contexts so far divorced from the clash of Classes in the US that they wind up without a clue to what’s happening. Hence no matter how brilliantly they elucidate, their understanding remains basically Tourist.

  13. Lev said on June 21st, 2008 at 12:21pm #

    What I wonder about is how can someone day in and day out do the mental gymnastics necessary to “justify” in their minds the presence of the illegal Zionist state entirely on lands taken at the muzzle of a gun in 1948 (and after), blame the victims and feign astonishment that anyone would want to shoot rockets into “Israel”. I have nothing against Jewish people, culture etc. I DO have a problem however with ethnic cleansing and states built with that as the foundation. Creating generations of tent-dwellers living in squalid refugee camps, and the Zionists can’t seem to muster the common sense to realize why they’re hated? For living on others’ ancestral land? ?

    Let’s imagine for a moment that a few million Chinese found some ancient scroll that purported to give them the right to own Uruguay. Armed with that “right” these Chinese millions sailed to Uruguay and at the muzzle of a gun forced the Uruguayans out of their homes, making them live in tent cities across the border in Argentina. Could anyone in their right mind say the Chinese would have a right to do this and that the Uruguayans would be in the wrong for fighting back by whatever means necessary? Alright then. Somebody explain that to AIPAC because it seems like if the Zionist military bombs a bunch of Palestinian kids, if you don’t commend the “Israeli” Air Force for their marksmanship then you’re ipso facto an anti-Semite.

  14. hp said on June 22nd, 2008 at 5:41pm #