Former US President Barack Obama gave a stirring response to the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Gaza when he was asked about the current situation in the Middle East during a “Pod Save America” event. An excerpt of the interview released over the weekend, which has gone viral, has been widely praised for its “balance and fairness”.
Obama lamented that “nobody’s hands are clean,” and that he wished he had done more during his presidency to move things forward for peace. “As hard as I tried,” said Obama gesturing that he had “scars” to prove it, “was there something else I could have done?” Obama did not acknowledge in his remarks whether he could have done more on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while president. Despite holding the most powerful position in the world for eight years, he failed to make progress, and endured an infamously tense relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In addition to Israeli intransigence, domestically he was vilified by the pro-Israel lobby, as detailed in his 2020 book, A Promised Land.
Recounting the challenges, he said that he had discovered that dealing with Israel is unlike dealing with any other country.
“Normal policy differences with an Israeli prime minister — even one who presided over a fragile coalition government — exacted a domestic political cost that simply didn’t exist when I dealt with the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, Canada, or any of our other closest allies,” said Obama, pointing to the backlash over his insistence that Israel should freeze its construction of illegal settlements.
The pro-Israel lobby was a constant thorn in his side. “Members of both parties worried about crossing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC),” he said, describing it as “a powerful bipartisan lobbying organisation dedicated to ensuring unwavering US support for Israel.” Noting the challenges of confronting the Israel lobby, Obama explained that, “AIPAC’s clout could be brought to bear on virtually every congressional district in the country, and just about every politician in Washington — including me — counted AIPAC members among their key supporters and donors.”
The former president soon realised that “those who criticised Israeli policy too loudly risked being tagged as ‘anti-Israel’ — and possibly anti-Semitic — and confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election.”
The extent of this challenge was laid bare even more when he discovered that members of his own party were infuriated with him. Obama recollected a conversation with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes following a complaint by an agitated Democrat member of Congress. “I thought he opposes settlements,” said Obama to Rhodes who had spent an hour on the phone to calm the congressman down. “He does,” replied Rhodes. “He also opposes us doing anything to actually stop settlements.”
Obama’s remarks about the scars he had suffered for challenging Israel was not, however, the main reason why his interview with Pod Save America has been praised. With no moral or legal justification for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, Obama and other liberals find it easier to invoke “complexity” rather than acknowledge their own complicity. Since the reality of Israeli crimes against Palestinians is indefensible, Obama relies on claims of nuance to avoid taking a clear moral stance.
A good example of what I mean is an article by the Guardian’s Zionist columnist Jonathan Freedland. “The tragedy of the Israel-Palestine conflict is this: underneath all the horror is a clash of two just causes,” said Freedland as the number of Palestinians killed reached 9,000, half of whom were children. “The Israel/Palestine conflict [is] something infinitely more tragic: a clash of right v right,” added Freedland, citing the late Israeli novelist and “peace activist” Amos Oz. “Two peoples with deep wounds, howling with grief, fated to share the same small piece of land.”
Obama too peddled the very same narrative, appealing to his audience to understand the complexity of the situation. “If there’s any chance of us to constructively do something it would require an admission of complexity.” He went on to say that the Hamas attack on 7 October was “horrific” and that there was no justification for it. And that what is also true is that the occupation and what’s happening to Palestinians is “unbearable.” Obama mentioned that there is a history of the “madness of anti-Semitism,” and that there are people dying now who have nothing to do with what Hamas did.
Such complexity, makes it impossible to discuss the Israel Palestine conflict on a superficial level, argued Obama. “You can’t speak the truth,” he said. “You can pretend to speak the truth. You can speak one side of the truth.” The former president then explained that if you want to solve the problem you have understand what he called the “whole truth”.
While Obama’s caution about “complexity” has been praised, it contrasts starkly with recent comments by American author Ta-Nehisi Coates. One of America’s most influential Black voices, Coates has typically extolled Obama in past interviews conducted during his presidency. However, he now speaks bluntly about the Palestinian situation in a way that Obama continues to avoid.
Coates recently spent ten days visiting Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. In an interview about his trip, he expressed his shock at witnessing a system of segregation and racial injustice reminiscent of America’s own dark history of Jim Crow laws and apartheid. “The reality of the occupation became evident. As someone who had been reared on the fight against Jim Crow, against white supremacy, against apartheid, I felt tremendous shame,” Coates remarked in comments about his past indifference to Israel’s occupation.
Like so many Americans confounded by the complexity of the situation in the Middle East, Coates recounted how he entered the Israeli-occupied territories expecting nuance and complexity around the conflict. However, after touring the West Bank and East Jerusalem, he said that the parallels to oppression and subjugation he knew from the African American experience were clear to him. From separate roads and checkpoints for Palestinians to heavily-guarded Israeli settlements bisecting Palestinian neighbourhoods, Coates saw first-hand the daily indignities and humiliations of living under occupation.
“How could I not know?” Coates asked, ashamed of his own ignorance. “How could I not know that the only democracy in the Middle East that it builds itself on, is segregated?” What shocked him the most is, said Coates is “how uncomplicated” it is, referring to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. There is nothing “complicated” about it. “It’s made to sound as if you need a degree in Middle East Studies or a PhD to really understand what’s happening. But I understood the first day. US tax dollars are subsiding apartheid, subsidising segregationist order, a Jim Crow regime.”
As an American taxpayer, he expressed disbelief that US aid subsidises what he unambiguously describes as an apartheid, segregated system of control over Palestinian lives. He sees tropes about Israel being the Middle East’s “only democracy” as akin to America’s own problematic history of declaring itself the world’s freest nation while oppressing people of colour.
With the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr ‘s struggle for racial justice animating his life’s work, Coates says he cannot remain silent about the oppressive reality on the ground for Palestinians. He feels compelled to speak out against injustice, regardless of those who insist the situation is too “complex” to take a moral stand.
Obama’s continued invocation of complexity in the face of genocide reveals the limit of his moral leadership. There is no complexity when one side is committing genocide, while also imposing a brutal system of apartheid.
OPINION: Genocidal Israel: J’Accuse…!
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.