Obama & Palestine: The Last Chance
Obama & Palestine: The Last Chance

Obama & Palestine: The Last Chance

Barack Obama entered the White House more deeply informed about and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than any incoming president before him. He had attended and spoken at numerous events organized by the Arab-American and Palestinian-American communities, in which he had numerous contacts, and he had repeatedly criticized American policy, calling for a more even-handed approach toward Israel. Yet if there has been a distinguishing feature of Obama’s record on Israel-Palestine, it is that, unlike his recent predecessors, he has not a single achievement to his name. In the view of some top advisers, Obama’s final months in power are a unique opportunity to correct the record, and, more important, score an achievement that his successors could scarcely undo.

When he came to office, Palestinians looked to Obama as a potentially historic figure capable of ending their occupation. In a 2003 toast to Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian-American historian of the University of Chicago and later Columbia University, Obama reminisced about meals prepared by Khalidi’s wife, Mona, and the many talks that had been “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases.” He had met, dined with, and attended the lectures of such figures as Edward Said, the most famous and eloquent Palestinian critic of the Oslo accords, and he had offered words of encouragement to Ali Abunimah, the Palestinian activist, writer, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, and leading advocate of a one-state solution. Unlike other presidents, Obama was able to relate personally to the Palestinian experience. He could draw parallels with Britain’s colonization of Kenya, where his Muslim father was born, and the African-American struggle for civil rights that had culminated in his presidency.

In his first days on the job, Obama did not disappoint. Within hours of taking office he made his first phone call to a foreign leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “We were not expecting such a quick call from President Obama,” a pleased Abbas adviser said, “but we knew how serious he is about the Palestinian problem.” On his second day, Obama appointed a Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, Senator George Mitchell, author of a 2001 fact-finding report that called for a freeze in Israeli settlement construction. Four months later, ahead of a White House visit by Abbas, the administration publicly confronted Israel with a call for a complete freeze in settlement building in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Visitors to the White House said they had never heard Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, or either Bush speaking about Israel and Palestine in this way. Days after Abbas’s visit, Obama traveled to the Middle East, skipping what for another president would have been a requisite stop in Israel, and delivered an address in Cairo in which he said that “the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable” and spoke of the struggle of black people for full and equal rights in America.

Obama’s words, however, were not matched by his deeds. 

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