Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Israel in America: Obama's dance of death

What are we to make of the latest changes in Obama's entourage, ponders Eric Walberg

Obama has just lost his close friend and chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who is making the unusual transition from national to municipal politics. He is also losing his closest adviser David Axelrod (pragmatist Emanuel described their difference as prose versus poetry) and his mentor and director of the National Economic Council Larry Summers.

Why are Obama's three closest advisers -- all Jewish -- leaving? There is no pat answer. Axelrod is no friend of Summers, having suggested in an email the latter would be more comfortable in the “cafeteria at Goldman Sachs”. He claims he is homesick. Obama's Keynesianism probably finally got to Summers, who prefers tax cuts. Emanuel, a former congressman, a talented ballet dancer, son of an Irgun terrorist, and an Israeli soldier during the first Gulf war against Iraq, leads us to the real answer.

As a very, very strong Zionist (dual citizen? sayan?), he is Israel's canary in the White House. Israel boycotted Obama's UN speech at the Millennium Goals Summit in September, and has subjected Obama to dose after dose of humiliating treatment, the latest when Netanyahu asked for the pardon of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard (serving a life sentence) in exchange for a temporary halt in settlement expansion. Netanyahu defiantly visited Pollard in jail in 2002 and he is celebrated as a hero in yearly commemorations in Israel. There seems to be an eerie replay of 1991, the last time the White House seriously tried to stop the settlements. The Israel lobby abandoned Bush then and destroyed him in the 1992 elections.

The writing is on the wall: Obama is a one-term president. That is if he is even allowed to finish his first term. Obama was never popular in Israel. When he tried to add Israeli critic Chas Freeman to his team as chair of the National Intelligence Council in 2009 AIPAC blew a fuse. Now there are even threats against his life as a result of his stance on settlements and his reluctance to attack Iran. Loud protests in front of Netanyahu’s residence witness crowds burning effigies of Obama “the new Pharaoh”, “the descendant of slaves” who must be put in his place.

Obama, son of a Kenyan Muslim and American expat radical, is facing equally vicious bigotry by non-Jews. He is attacked at home by Americans of more traditional backgrounds who call him a communist and are incensed by his unusual origins and his unrepresentative entourage. Apocalyptic movements and rightwing "patriotic" militias, which grew under Clinton but abated under Bush junior, are increasing rapidly under Obama, and more staid but equally frustrated Americans conduct political "tea parties", confused and desperate for both stability and real change.

For despite the radically different appearance of Obama's "change" administration (including the colourful Emanuel), his policies have provided neither stability nor any real change. They are remarkably like those of his predecessor. The unwieldy and disappointing healthcare reform aside, the bankers and generals have been given just about whatever they ask for, Guantanamo stays open and torture continues. US troops stay in Iraq and Afghanistan. The economic morass Obama inherited from Bush merely deepens.

And what is Emanuel's legacy? According to critics, he was responsible for scuttling the real public healthcare option, leaving it in the hands of private insurers. He was courted by a litany of Wall Street officials and business leaders from day one. Emanuel’s White House calendar was filled with the likes of Comcast VP David Cohen (who just happened to have mergers pending), Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, and New York Daily News owner Mortimer Zuckerman, who showed up three times in two months.

With the Republicans poised to take control of one or both houses in November, Rahmbo, as he is affectionately known for his ruthless strong-arm tactics in the political ring, can safely jump ship just before it sinks. He is clearly betting that his friendship with Chicago's darling, America's first black president, will see him to victory in safely Democratic Chicago.

But, why the municipal ring? Yes, his "friend" Obama is toast. But is it possible Emanuel's sudden interest in local politics is because he realises presidents, senators and the like have very little real power to make decisions anyway? That a mayor can at least leave a visible legacy -- bike paths, community centres, parks? Or is he just bored, looking for a challenge where he can flex his muscles anew, flit gracefully across the political stage yet again as prince charming seducing the sleeping Miss America?

Whatever his motives, Rahmbo epitomises the shallowness, the effeteness of American politics today. The president of the most powerful nation on earth is powerless. A stuffed shirt. A photo op. A cultured Afro-American presiding over the most brutal empire the world has every known. Emanuel "made him" and has decided to leave him to his fate, to yet again play games with the US media and political circles, like a virtual performer orchestrating a grand reality game.

Pundits are mixed in assessing his chances. His strongest supporters are Chicago's white moneyed class and the business community, who favour Emanuel’s run because of his history as a Washington power broker, says political analyst Charles Dunn. “His pockets are overflowing with IOUs” and he will be able to call in past favours, giving him a huge advantage over his many competitors.

But he has little appeal to the 35 per cent of Chicagoans who are black and the 28 per cent who are Hispanic. His challengers are predominantly minority candidates, including James Meeks, a state senator and Baptist minister, and Chicago City Clerk Miguel del Valle. Many minority leaders, including several aldermen, have already made statements saying they will not support Emanuel’s candidacy. The field is very much open. In fact the call among those unhappy with machine politics in the Chicago is "Abre" -- "Anyone but Rahm Emanuel", which translates into Spanish as "Open".

As a Jew, Emanuel is very much a supporter of minority rights, but these real minorities understand that Jewish support for them from the likes of Rahmbo is only skin deep, so to speak. CNN's Hispanic host Rick Sanchez shocked Americans last week for saying as much on air. Sanchez is constantly ridiculed by Jewish TV satirist Jon Stewart, and finally fought back, calling Stewart a "bigot" with "a white liberal establishment point-of-view", saying CNN and the media are largely run by Jews and elitists. Of course, he was immediately fired, but no one can dispute the truth behind his outburst. Says analyst Peter Myers, "Other minorities are accorded status only on condition that the Jewish minority remains number one."

Compounding Emanuel’s difficulties is the expected candidacy of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who is white (but not Jewish), and well-liked among black and Latino voters because of his highly publicised refusal to evict renters of foreclosed buildings and his prosecution of the owners of a historic black cemetery who illegally exhumed 300 bodies for profit.

Is any of this of importance to the world at large? Do the departures of Emanuel, Axelrod and Summers portend a more even-handed policy on the Middle East -- a defiance of Israel in the remaining two years of his one-term presidency? Will he suddenly cut Israel's massive aid budget and insist it withdraw from occupied lands? Will (largely Jewish) bankers and other elite miscreants be subpoenaed and jailed for their many crimes, as happened to an earlier Chicagoan, Moses Annenberg, who was jailed for tax evasion in the 1930s under president Roosevelt?

The answer is of course "no". I mention Annenberg, because he was a Jewish Chicago media magnate and underworld figure brought down by a president who still wielded some power. His son Walter Annenberg continued in his father's less-than-pristine footsteps, but covered them with the Annenberg Foundation, lavishing money on "good causes". He rightly realised he could use a liberal facade and his newspapers to make or break politicians, rather than be broken by them.

Like Obama and Emanuel, Annenberg's story is the stuff of legend. His publishing empire grew and grew, he was Nixon's ambassador to the UK and so charmed the Queen that she made him an honourary knight (Americans disdain such unseemly titles). All the time he was "conservative" Ronald Reagan’s “best friend" according to Nancy Reagan.

The “liberal” Barack Obama first gained political prominence as an activist with the Annenberg Foundation's Education Challenge. Annenberg, who died in 2002, would be delighted to know his charitable works in Chicago helped elect the first black president, whose "Israel first!" chief of staff would go on to become the city's first Jewish mayor, putting the real minorities in their place. Will Emanuel sail to victory on a pro-Israeli whirlwind, or can a plucky Dart prick the Zionist balloon and bring the circus to a halt?
Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly You can reach him at