Jun 15th 2010

Changing Direction on Gaza: Challenges Confronting Obama

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

 In trying to change direction and find “a better approach” to dealing with the long running crisis facing Gaza, the Obama Administration is confronting several deeply entrenched obstacles.

 

The President outlined his new approach at a White House press availability following a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. After reiterating his post-flotilla view that the Israeli blockade of Gaza was “unsustainable”, Obama called for a new international mechanism involving Israel, and including “Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and the international community”, that would focus on excluding arms while allowing not only humanitarian supplies, but also “goods and services [needed for] economic development, and the ability of people to start their own businesses and to grow the economy and provide opportunity within Gaza”. To make clear the American commitment, the President announced an aid package that included monies specifically earmarked for “housing, school construction and business development” in Gaza and the West Bank. Finally, Obama reiterated his support for a “credible, transparent investigation that [meets] international standards” and will “get all the facts out” regarding the tragic events that resulted in the deaths of nine passengers on the Mavi Marmara. 

 

The U.S. President's efforts will face significant challenges. The Israelis, for example, have demonstrated little interest in an investigation which they can not fully control. They have countered with their own inquiries, limited in scope, while suggesting that they may allow "observers" to witness their process. This, of course, falls far short of both the United Nations' requirements and Obama's proposal. At the same time, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), by seizing all of the materials on the captured ships and the personal properties of the passengers (phones, cameras, laptop computers and other effects), have tainted the "evidence" making any independent inquiry all the more difficult. Additionally, the Israelis have made clear their disinterest in an objective review in a series of postings on the IDF website that allege, without evidence or documentation, the "terrorist affiliations" of passengers, by name.  

 

The Israelis have shown no inclination that they would accept a "managed arms blockade" that they do not fully control, countering instead with a limited relaxation of their oppressive regime allowing some confections and other Israeli-supplied commercial goods to enter Gaza.   

 

Another obstacle in Obama's way is the continued fissure plaguing the Palestinian polity. In announcing his aid plan for Gaza the President indicated that he was supporting Palestinian Authority President Abbas and saw the P.A. as a partner in administering the aid directed to both the West Bank and Gaza. But the P.A. has scant sway in Gaza and absent any move toward Palestinian reconciliation it will continue to have little or no ability to function in that area. On the critical issue of much needed Palestinian unity, President Obama has been silent.

 

Finally, Obama faces domestic challenges to his efforts to take policy in a new direction. While U.S. public opinion is supportive of the key elements of his plan, Congress is not. A Zogby International survey conducted after the White House press event found support for the President’s goals. When asked to evaluate Obama's statement—“what’s important right now is that we break out of the current impasse, use this tragedy as an opportunity so that we figure out how can we meet Israel’s security concerns, but at the same time start opening up opportunity for Palestinians, work with all parties concerned—the Palestinian Authority, the Israelis, the Egyptians and others—and I think Turkey can have a positive voice in this whole process once we’ve worked through this tragedy. And bring everybody together to figure out how can we get a two-state solution where the Palestinians and Israelis can live side by side in peace and security”—53% were favorable (including 79% of Democrats), while only 39% were unfavorable. And when asked for their reaction to Obama's statement—“The United States, with the other members of the U.N Security Council said very clearly that we condemned all the acts that led up to this violence. It was a tragic situation. You’ve got loss of life that was unnecessary. So we are calling for an effective investigation of everything that happened"—49% agreed with the President (including 88% of Democrats), while 38% disagreed.

 

But Congress is of another mind. While a few Members have joined the President in condemning the killings and calling for an independent thorough investigation, many more Members of Congress, including leading Democrats and virtually the entire GOP contingent, have been quick to accept Israeli-supplied talking points, making statements and proposing legislation that not only supports Israel's version of the events, but calls for a continuation of the blockade.

 

All this puts the President on notice that if his efforts to change direction are to bear fruit, he will have to confront not only a determined, hard-line government in Israel and stubborn Palestinian realities, but an entrenched and unthinking pro-Israel bias in Congress. 

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