When Obama became Peres

"With his approval ratings reaching a seven-year high, and world leaders praising his achievements, America’s first black president is paving the way for a white nationalist."

November 28, 2016 22:50
3 minute read.
US President Barack Obama toasts with former president Shimon Peres

US President Barack Obama toasts with former president Shimon Peres after Obama was presented with the Presidential Medal of Distinction, Israel's highest civilian honor, in Jerusalem, March 21, 2013. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Political success, and public affection, came late for Shimon Peres.

For most of his career, Peres was a despised public figure. In the 1950s and ‘60s he was despised by native Israelis, who viewed him as a Galitzian exile. In the ‘70s, he was despised by Mizrahi Israelis who saw him as part of the Ashkenazi elite. By the ‘90s Peres was despised by both left-wing and right-wing Israelis.

It was not until 2007, when he was 84 years old, that Peres become a popular public figure. Amid the political turmoil of the 2006 Lebanon War, and the resignation of president Moshe Katzav following allegations of rape, the nation looked to its elder statesman to restore the country’s sense of dignity. Throughout his seven-year presidency, Peres was the most popular and beloved Israeli public figure. Left, Right, secular and religious – all came to respect him.

Yet Peres’s political success came at high price as he turned from a peace-maker to a fig leaf protecting right-wing governments against criticism. Whenever a world leader was ready to criticize Israeli settlements, Peres was dispatched to assuage him. Whenever a country was ready to boycott Israel, Peres was sent to negotiate a truce. Whenever a US president was about to call for a two-state solution, Peres was rushed to the White House to receive a medal and reiterate Israel’s commitment to peace.

The love of the common man in exchange for the white-washing of right- wing governments and their policies. That was the bargain Peres struck.

Strangely, US President Barack Obama now finds himself in a similar situation. Since the election of Donald Trump, Obama has taken it upon himself to ensure a smooth transition of power. This began on November 10 when Obama invited Trump to the White House for their first meeting. Sitting together in the Oval Office, the two men took turns complimenting one another and calling on the nation to unite after a contentious campaign.

“I want to emphasize to you, Mr. President-elect, that we now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed because if you succeed, then the country succeeds,” said Obama before shaking Trump’s hand.

To some, Obama’s words were a testament to the resilience of American democracy. Despite his personal loathing of Trump, President Obama remained committed to the democratic process and to his obligation to respect the choice of the American people. Yet to racial and ethnic minorities, Obama’s words were part of a dangerous process of legitimizing Trump and his policies. Trump’s plans to register Muslims, his refusal to denounce hate crimes, his willingness to be associated with white supremacists and his continued contempt for Americans who did not vote for him were all swept under the presidential rug.

Last week, Obama began legitimizing Trump in international forums. His recent tour of Greece, Germany and the APEC Summit in Peru were all dedicating to assuaging fears of a Trump presidency. Obama promised that America would remain a positive power in the world; that Trump would uphold American obligations and that the US would never turn its back on its allies in Europe and Latin America.

Obama’s farewell tour thus turned into the Trump welfare tour, a means of ensuring that Trump would not be a persona non grata from day one.

One has to wonder what has brought about Obama’s eagerness to blaze the trail for President-elect Trump. Surely one foreign address, or one press conference abroad, won’t have been enough to assuage some of the anxiety of world leaders. Additionally, was Obama’s statement in the Oval Office not enough to set the tone for the presidential transition? And how can Obama continuously fail to address the alarming increase in hate crimes across the US, the appearance of Nazi salutes at a conference in Washington, DC, and the letters being sent to religious minorities urging them to leave America?

The answer may lie in Trump’s recent decisions to preserve certain elements of Obamacare, support same-sex marriage and avoid appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton. His domestic achievements in exchange for the white-washing of Trump and his policies, that appears to be the bargain Obama struck.

And so Obama has turned into another Peres. With his approval ratings reaching a seven-year high, and world leaders praising his achievements, America’s first black president is paving the way for a white nationalist. It would seem that both Obama and Peres were destined to be tragic political figures who ultimately enabled that which they had fought so hard to prevent.

The author is a PhD student in diplomacy at the University of Oxford.

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