Saturday, February 28, 2009

When it comes to Israel, Obama can't talk about race

For all its interest in speaking openly about race, the Obama administration is backing out of a UN conference on racism due to a draft resolution which characterizes Israel's illegal policies toward the Palestinians as having a racial dimension.

It's worth noting that UN conferences on racism, like UN conferences on anything, are not binding. At best, these events raise issues in a public way, and put pressure on governments to live up to their professed ideals.

But they do no compel governments to do anything. If the Obama administration does not like what, for example, the Arab states have to say about Israel, it is free to remain unpersuaded. Presumably it is this understanding that informs Obama's confidence on diplomatic talks with other nations -- though apparently not in this case.

The likely reason is that the Israeli state is so handicapped by its favorite crutch -- that criticism of the government equals anti-semitism -- that Obama has to pick his battles very carefully. Any kind of workable two-state solution is going to be extremely difficult to extract from the Israelis (though if the US stopped providing billions of dollars in military aid per year, it might prove easier -- but this is not likely to happen), so alienating their political class from the start probably seems counterproductive.

Nevertheless, it is useful for Americans to understand how US relations with Israel limit their ability to engage with the world community on important issues such as race.

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