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Obama Is Wrong About Israel

In his last speech to the United Nations as leader of the free world, President Barack Obama lamented the fact that he was the latest in a long line of presidents who have failed to find a solution to the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Like his predecessors, Obama sounded conciliatory notes.

“Surely Israelis and Palestinians will be better off if Palestinians reject incitement and recognize the legitimacy of Israel," Obama said. "But Israel must recognize that it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land. We all have to do better."

It's too bad the Obama of 2016 doesn't sound like the Obama of 2004 and earlier, before he was dubbed the fastest-rising star of the Democratic party, before he was considered a serious presidential candidate.

“I knew Barack Obama for many years as my state senator -- when he used to attend events in the Palestinian community in Chicago all the time," said Ali Abunimah, former president of the Electronic Intifada. "I remember personally introducing him onstage in 1999, when we had a major community fundraiser for the community center in Deheisha refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. And that’s just one example of how Barack Obama used to be very comfortable speaking up for and being associated with Palestinian rights and opposing the Israeli occupation.”

Even the Barack Obama of 2008 would've been more honest than he was in his U.N. speech.

"There is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, that you're anti-Israel," Obama told a Cleveland audience, per The Wall Street Journal.

But as Obama's presidential prospects became more likely, a funny thing happened -- he fell in line and took a firmly pro-Israel stance that was at odds with everything he'd ever said up to that point. Before he was a U.S. senator and a presidential candidate, Obama was a community activist, a supporter of Palestinian human rights, a friend to Chicago's Palestinian community.

Some of the president's critics are saying he went too far in his speech when he blamed Israel for occupying Palestinian land. But to others, he didn't go far enough.

Consider the case of Nureddin Amro, a Palestinian principal of a school for orphaned, disadvantaged and visually impaired kids. In the summer of 2015, Amro wrote a first-person story in The New York Times about Israel's campaign to demolish his neighborhood and make way for Israeli "settlements."

Three generations of his family -- a dozen people in all -- lived beneath the roof of a house that had been in the family for 70 years. Without warning, the house suddenly had a target on it.

"We had gone to bed looking forward to a picnic the next morning, but we were awoken by the frightening sounds of jeeps and heavy machinery," Amro wrote. "Israeli security forces banged on the doors, shouting in Hebrew that we had to get out at once. They had come to demolish our home."

The Israeli government had decided to push Palestinians out of east Jerusalem, and it was going to invent any excuse to bulldoze the 55 homes in its way. Scenes like that play out all over the Palestinian territories every day, and they've been happening for years, squeezing the Palestinians into two miserable little spits of land absent jobs, opportunities or decent quality of life.

Consider the case of Wissam Tayem, who was a 20-something violinist heading to a lesson when he reached an Israeli military checkpoint. Peace activists filmed the subsequent scene, in which Israeli soldiers told Tayem to sit on his violin case by the checkpoint and "play something sad."

The video caused outrage in Israel -- not because of concern for Palestinians like Tayem, but because the image was reminiscent of scenes that played out during the Holocaust.

"The critics were not drawing a parallel between an Israeli roadblock and a Nazi camp," a Guardian reporter noted at the time. "Their concern was that Jewish suffering had been diminished by the humiliation of Mr. Tayem."

Consider the case of Anwar Burqan, an eight-year-old Palestinian girl who was riding her bicycle near her home in late July when an Israeli soldier carrying an assault rifle ran up to her, began yelling at her, and took her bike before throwing it into an inaccessible wooded area.

The soldiers seemed to find it amusing when the terrified little girl ran back to her house sobbing.

“It was a trauma that will stay with her for her whole life,” her mother said, per the Independent.

Take all these cases together -- and the many, many disturbing reports of the ways settlers behave -- and an undeniable conclusion presents itself. To many Israelis, the Palestinians are subhuman. Not all of them feel that way, but enough of them do to fuel the cycle of violence.

Obama's right when he says the Palestinians have to find ways to stand up for themselves besides violence. That's an obvious statement. There's no excuse for terrorism, and a long line of Palestinian leaders have either directly helped or cooperated with terrorists. Many of them, including the late leader Yasser Arafat, have been guilty of saying one thing in English to western reporters, and directly inciting violence when addressing their own people in Arabic.

The problem is, the vast majority of Palestinians are not engaging in violence. They're regular men, women and children who want to go to work, go to school, start families, and work jobs that can put food on the table.

Since the Second Intifada, beginning in 2000, 1,091 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians, according to the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights, known as B'Tselem. Over that same period, 6,890 Palestinians have been sent to their graves. The proportions are similar every time violence flares up between the two factions -- the Palestinians fight with rocks, knives and sometimes bombs, and the Israelis attack with tanks, helicopters, war planes and assault rifles.

If any U.S. president wants to truly pave the way toward peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, they're going to need to be honest about the situation, unequivocally condemn Israel's policy of building "settlements" on Palestinian land, and publicly recognize that both sides are at fault.

For decades, the U.S. has pursued peace under the pretense that the Palestinians are evil and the Israelis are innocent defenders of their homeland. But it takes two to tango, and both sides have blood on their hands. How can Palestinians trust the U.S. to broker peace when the U.S. government can't even be honest about what's happening on the ground?

Unfortunately, it took Obama the better part of eight years to start speaking the truth again, and neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump have signaled any willingness to approach the situation in good faith without the same biases that have always prevented peace.

Sources: Times of Israel, B'Tselem via, Independent, The Guardian, The New York Times, / Photo credit: The White House/Flickr

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