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. This article, which also appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, is made available to MRZine through the Institute for Middle East Understanding.