A Promised Land: Obama’s Memoirs Malign Israel

“Facts,” the English philosopher and writer Aldous Huxley once observed, “don’t cease to exist because they are ignored.” Yet, in his recently released memoir, A Promised Land, Barack Obama both ignores and omits key facts about the Middle East. In particular, the former president gets relevant Israeli history wrong.

Perhaps most disturbing, however, is Obama’s tendency to minimize Palestinian terrorism. For example, he refers to Hamas as merely a “Palestinian resistance group.” Yet, Obama doesn’t tell readers what exactly Hamas is “resisting.”

Hamas is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that has called for the end of Israel and the genocide of Jews. The group has murdered and maimed hundreds of people—including Israelis, Americans and dissenting Palestinians. Hamas’s own foundational charter—often referred to as its Covenant—is virulently antisemitic, exhorting to “fight the Jews and kill them.” The Covenant declares that Jews control “world media, news agencies, the press” and that they are behind the “French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions.” As historian Jeffrey Herf noted in The American Interest: “the Covenant claims that the destruction of Israel is a religious obligation, that is, for Muslims; it is a ‘response to Allah’s command.’”

Describing Hamas as a “resistance group” is incorrect and implicitly paints antisemitic terrorists in a sympathetic light, misleading readers. Worse still, while Obama acknowledges that they’re an “armed proxy” of Iran, he traffics in the fiction that there is a “military wing” of Hamas.

Matthew Levitt, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis for the U.S. Treasury Department and author of a 2007 book on Hamas, noted that “Hamas benefits from an ostensible distinction drawn by some analysts between its ‘military’ and ‘political’ or ‘social’ wings.” But such a distinction, Levitt warns, “is contradicted by the consistent if scattered findings of investigators, journalists, and analysts.” Rather “a review of the evidence…demonstrates the centrality of the group’s overt activities to the organization’s ability to recruit, indoctrinate, train, fund and dispatch suicide bombers to attack civilian targets.”

Obama’s inability—or perhaps unwillingness—to see Hamas for who they are is part and parcel of a broader trend evidenced in his memoirs. The United States’s 44th president repeatedly strikes a false equivalency between Israel and the terrorists who seek the Jewish state’s destruction.

For example, discussing an overseas trip shortly after he won the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2008, Obama writes that he “went to the town of Sderot” and “listened as parents described the terror of rocket shells launched from nearby Gaza landing just a few yards from their children’s bedrooms. In Ramallah, I heard Palestinians speak of the daily humiliations endured at Israeli security checkpoints.” There is no comparison, of course, between the launching of rockets at civilians—often from behind the cover of human shields, a double war crime—and that of security methods put in place to stop terrorism. One murders and the other prevents murder. Indeed, the checkpoints themselves came about as a result of Palestinian terrorist attacks.

Yet, the former president says that he can’t understand why he was sometimes portrayed as being anti-Israel—even writing that “some of my most stalwart friends and supporters had come from “Chicago’s Jewish community.” He has Jewish friends, you see.

Obama’s tendency towards striking false equivalency between Israeli security measures and Palestinian terrorist efforts is buttressed by an understanding of relevant history that is rooted in inaccuracies and false assumptions.

For example, he refers to the “Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.” But as CAMERA, among others, has noted: the territories in question are not “Palestinian.” Indeed, a Palestinian Arab state has never existed. The proper term, as several news outlets have acknowledged in corrections prompted by CAMERA, is “disputed territories.” Indeed, if the status of territories like the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) weren’t disputed, there would be nothing to negotiate. Referring to them as “Palestinian” prejudges the outcome.

Questionable language is followed by revisionist history, with Obama claiming that “the conflict between Arabs and Jews has been an open sore on the region for almost a century, dating back to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the British, who were then occupying Palestine, committed to create a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ in a region overwhelmingly populated by Arabs. Over the next twenty or so years, Zionist leaders mobilized a surge of Jewish migration to Palestine and organized highly trained armed forces to defend their settlements.”

In fact, Arab anti-Jewish violence long predated the 1917 Balfour Declaration. In 1834, for example, Jews in Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberias were murdered and raped and their belongings destroyed in a pogrom that lasted for 33 days. Safed had also witnessed another mass pogrom in 1517.There were numerous other instances of mass anti-Jewish violence in Ottoman lands prior to Balfour. Indeed, under the Ottoman Empire, Jews, along with other non-Muslim minorities, were segregated and had their rights severely curtailed. Despite this long history of anti-Jewish violence, Obama seeks to portray “settlements”—that is to say, the construction of Jewish homes in Judea after the 1967 Six-Day War—as the principal factor motivating Palestinian terrorism.

Obama also asserts that “just about every country in the world considered Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian territories to be a violation of international law.” Yet, there is a legal basis for Jewish claims to the land. As CAMERA has documented (see, for example, “The West Bank—Jewish Territory Under International Law”), Israel has a foundation for asserting sovereignty over the area. Additionally, the League of Nations Palestine Mandate, adopted later by the United Nations, calls for “close Jewish settlement on the land” west of the Jordan River in Article 6. The UN Charter, Chapter XII, Article 80, upholds the Mandate’s provisions. The 1920 San Remo Treaty and the 1924 Anglo-American Convention also enshrined Jewish territorial claims in international law.

Jews are also indigenous to the land and maintained a continual presence that predates the Arab and Islamic conquests of the 7th century. And many Jews whose ancestors had been forced out by Roman and Islamic conquerors continued to return, if in small but growing numbers, to their ancestral land long before 1917. Jerusalem itself had a majority Jewish population by the mid-19th century. And most historians usually date the first major wave of Jewish immigration to the 1880s.

Nor was “Palestine” a nation as Obama’s phrasing implies. It was a term applied—often vaguely—to a portion of the Ottoman Empire. Many of the Arabs who lived in the area considered themselves to be, if not citizens of the Ottoman Empire, “southern Syrians.” Arab notables in Jerusalem even petitioned to join the newly created mandate for Syria after the Empire’s fall (for more see Middle East Review, “The Year the Arabs Discovered Palestine,” Summer 1989).

Obama also glosses over the reason for the creation of Jewish “armed forces.” The first Jewish security unit, Hashomer, was created in 1907 to fend off robbers and thieves in the poorly policed Ottoman Empire. The security forces only began to grow as a response to the organized mass murder of Jews in 1920, 1921, and, in particular, the 1929 Hebron massacre. The British authorities who ruled Mandate Palestine failed to stop these murders and, as CAMERA highlighted in an April 14, 2020 Mosaic op-ed, may have even encouraged some of them (“Century-Old Lessons From a Jerusalem Pogrom”).

And contrary to what the 44th president implies, Jews didn’t take the land. Rather, most of the “settlements” were purchased—and often from the Arabs themselves. As the historian Benny Morris noted in his 2008 book 1948: “A giant question mark hangs over the ethos of the Palestinian Arab elite: Husseinis, as well as Nashashibis, Khalidis, Dajanis, and Tamimis … sold land to the Zionist institutions and/or served as Zionist agents or spies.” These families, many of whom would lead opposition to the existence of Israel and the right of Jewish self-determination, secretly sold land to the very movement that they denounced.

Indeed, as the historian Yehoshua Porath documented in The Palestinian Arab National Movement, 1929-1939, when British official John Hope Simpson met with Arabs in the northern part of what is today Israel some Arabs requested a meeting where they “expressed their views in support of Jewish immigration and land purchases.” “These people,” Porath noted, “were owners of large tracts of fallow land of which they wanted to sell part in order to reclaim the rest. Since they could not find any potential Arab buyer, they needed Jewish immigration and growing Jewish demand for land in order to sell it to them for as dearly as possible.”

Yet, these Arabs continued to reject offers for something that had never existed, an independent Palestinian Arab state, if it meant living in peace next to a Jewish nation. In 1947, they rejected the U.N. Partition Plan that would’ve created two such countries, choosing instead to try and destroy the fledgling Jewish state—with former Nazis even taking part and assisting the Arabs. The Jewish leaders, by contrast, accepted the UN’s proposal. Or, as Obama oddly describes it, “the two sides quickly fell into war.” In fact, one side rejected peace and chose war. But this basic truth seems lost on the author.

And here is how Obama describes the recreation of Israel: “with Jewish militias claiming victory in 1948, the State of Israel was officially born. For the Jewish people it was a dream fulfilled…but for the roughly seven hundred thousand Arab Palestinians who found themselves stateless and driven from their lands, the same events would be part of what became known as the Nakba, or ‘Catastrophe.’”

Many Arabs did flee—as a result of their leaders’ preference for war over peace and statehood. Others fled before the war commenced—often with the expectation that the Jews would easily be defeated. Some, such as those in Haifa, fled despite efforts by Jewish officials who encouraged them to stay.

But more than one million Jews were kicked out of Arab lands in the war’s wake. Curiously, Obama omits this fact. Nor does he ruminate about “stateless” Palestinian Arabs declining a state and partnering with actual Nazi collaborators like Amin al-Husseini in an effort to murder Jews in the Holocaust’s wake.

Obama also errs when he implies that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) came into being as a result Israel’s successful defense in the 1967 Six-Day War. In fact, the PLO was created in 1964. And the organization that would come to dominate it, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, had been formed in Kuwait in 1959—nearly a decade before the 1967 conflict. Obama implies that the “occupation” and “settlements” helped fuel terrorism and the PLO, but as the late Middle East historian Barry Rubin noted the reverse acronym of Fatah literally means “conquest.” Arafat and his Fatah co-founders considered all of Israel to be a “settlement” and were heirs—and in Arafat’s case, literally cousins—to Amin Husseini and those who sought Israel’s destruction long before the 1967 War.

Obama claims “the United States was no bystander” in the Arab-Israeli conflict, citing Harry Truman’s being “the first foreign leader to formally recognize Israel as a sovereign state.” The Palestinians, he claims, didn’t receive support—in part because Israelis shared the same appearance as “their white Christian brethren” in the U.S. This latter claim is particularly risible and reveals more about Obama’s conception—and ignorance—of the conflict and its participants than about historical fact.

Jews are not white. And certainly, many Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews do not ‘look white.’ Truman did indeed support the recreation of Israel—but he did so against the opposition of his own Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State, among many others (for details see Algemeiner, “The Arab Street is a Dead End,” Jan. 14, 2019). Truman even imposed an arms embargo on Israel when it was fighting for its very existence. Indeed, Obama’s own former Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross, wrote an entire book Doomed to Succeed, which details the American foreign policy elite’s frequent hostility toward Israel in the Jewish state’s early decades—and beyond. In 1951, the CIA even created a group called the American Friends of the Middle East, which historian Michael Doran noted in the Wall Street Journal, “sought to weaken support for the Jewish state in the U.S.” As late as the 1970s, as CAMERA detailed in The Jerusalem Post, the CIA even took a known Palestinian terrorist to Disneyland for his honeymoon and gave him weapons and protection (“The Time That The CIA Took a Terrorist to Disneyland,” Jan. 22, 2020).

Put simply: the idea that the U.S. unquestionably backed Israel is, at best, simplistic. Indeed, when one considers that the Palestinian movement sided with the Nazis during World War II and received Soviet largesse and sponsorship in the Cold War, and that Arafat supported Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the First U.S.-Iraq War, it is no wonder that democratic Israel seemed like a better ally to many Americans.

But Obama omits this history of sordid alliances between Palestinian leaders and anti-American autocrats. Obama also claims that “a strong majority of white evangelicals” supporting Israel is a new development that aids “the GOP’s most reliable voting bloc” and hinders peace. This shows a poor knowledge of Israeli history, as Christian support for the idea of Zionism—Jewish self-determination in the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland—is a bipartisan idea that stretches back centuries and is not limited to evangelical Christians in the U.S. The second President of the United States, John Adams, made a pro-Zionist declaration as early as 1819. In 1891, Republican President Benjamin Harrison (1888-1892) accepted a petition written by Christian minister William Blackstone which called for Jews to return to their homeland. The petition was later presented to Democratic President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), who, along with U.K. Prime Minister David Lloyd George—often regarded as the founder of his country’s welfare state—supported Zionism. Yet, Obama omits this history, preferring to construe support for Israel as both a partisan and recent development.

Unsurprisingly, his retelling of the history of the so-called “peace process” leaves a lot to be desired, as well.

Obama claims that the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel “left the Palestinian issue unresolved.” But as Obama adviser Dennis Ross, among others, has documented: “the PLO had an opportunity to join the process but chose not to do so.” The “Palestinians,” Ross noted in an Oct. 19, 2018 Foreign Policy article, “effectively excluded themselves on a number of occasions.”

Indeed, there is a long history of Palestinian leaders rejecting opportunities for peace and statehood. In 1937, 1947, 2000, 2001 and 2008, among other instances, Palestinian leadership rejected proposals that could’ve led to a state (for details see Algemeiner, “The Bahrain Conference and the Big Omission,” June 28, 2019). Astonishingly, Obama omits this crucial history in his memoirs. He even incorrectly claims that “the PLO finally recognized Israel’s right to exist” as part of the Oslo peace process. In fact, while Arafat promised to do so, he never did. As the Middle East analyst Shoshana Bryen highlighted in an Aug. 21, 2013 Algemeiner op-ed, the PLO’s “Charter has never been amended and in fact, fealty to ‘armed struggle’ (i.e., terrorism) was reasserted as late as 2011.”

In some cases, Obama pretends that Palestinian rejectionism didn’t happen. Of the 2000 and 2001 U.S. proposals for Palestinian statehood—which Israel accepted, and Arafat rejected—Obama merely writes that “talks collapsed in recrimination.” Yet Arafat not only refused these proposals—with President Bill Clinton himself blaming Arafat—the PLO head began planning a terror war while simultaneously professing an interest in peace.

The Second Intifada, the five-year-long Palestinian terror campaign of suicide bombings, mass shootings, stabbings and vehicular assaults that resulted in more than 1,000 Israelis being murdered and many more maimed, was planned by Arafat before the 2001 talks at Taba. Suha Arafat, the PLO leader’s wife, admitted as much in a 2012 interview with Dubai TV. As the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs has documented, Mustafa Barghouti, a top Fatah operative, has stated that Arafat raised the idea of launching a terror campaign in a June 25, 2000 meeting. In 2013, JCPA even published a lengthy report filled with quotes from other PLO and Fatah officials admitting that Arafat planned the Intifada over the summer.

Yet, in his 2020 memoirs Obama chooses to blame Israel for the violence perpetrated against it. The 44th president claims that Ariel Sharon, then an Israeli politician planning a run for prime minister, provoked the Intifada by a “deliberately provocative and highly publicized visit to one of Islam’s holiest sites, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.” This “stunt,” he claims, led to the Second Intifada. Obama also erases Jewish history.

The Temple Mount is, in fact, the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam. It’s curious that Obama omits the former and only acknowledges the latter. Nor does he explain why Jews visiting one of their holy sites is “provocative.”

Of the Intifada itself, Obama “writes that a thousand Israelis and three thousand Palestinians died”—but fails to tell his readers that most of the Israeli casualties were civilians, whereas the majority of the Palestinian casualties were combatants. Seeking to continue his theme of U.S. leaders being anti-Palestinian, he writes that President George W. Bush “remained officially supportive of a two-state solution” but “was reluctant to press Sharon on the issue.” In fact, in an Aug. 29, 2001 letter to Saudi Prince Abdullah, Bush became the first American president to say that it was U.S. policy to favor creation of a Palestinian state. As former Bush administration officials Doug Feith and Scooter Libby noted, “No commitments from Arafat or Arab states had been obtained in advance; and Bush received little credit from the Arab world.” Or, it seems, from his successor.

Nor does Israel get any credit. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza only to see its residents subsequently elect Hamas. After winning elections and seizing power from their rival Fatah, Hamas began to launch rockets into Israel, which responded by trying to prevent arms and military material from reaching the Strip. Or, as Obama merely describes it “Gaza came under the control of Hamas and soon found itself under a tightly enforced Israeli blockade.” Neither the withdrawal itself—nor its consequences—is mentioned.

Later, Obama notes “every so often fire from Gaza still endangered those living in Israeli border towns, and the presence of Jewish Israeli settlers in the West Bank sometimes triggered deadly skirmishes [emphasis added].” By this phrasing, readers would think that rockets launched at Jews—more than 600 in the first week of May 2019 alone—are infrequent and that by living in their ancestral homeland Jews trigger violence against themselves.

By the time he entered the Oval office, Obama notes that “Israeli attitudes towards peace talks had hardened. In part,” he claims, “because peace no longer seemed so crucial to ensuring the country’s safety and prosperity.” For “most residents of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv,” Obama claims without supplying any evidence, “the Palestinians lived largely out of sight, their struggles and resentments troubling but remote.”

But by 2009, Palestinian leaders had rejected three offers for statehood in less than a decade and launched a terror war instead. As CAMERA’s Steve Stotsky documented, more Israelis were murdered in terror attacks after the Oslo “peace process” began than before it was initiated. Perhaps that had something to do with growing Israeli skepticism.

Tellingly, Obama doesn’t discuss “Palestinian attitudes towards peace talks.” As CAMERA has documented, polling of Palestinian Arabs has long shown that the majority of Palestinians don’t recognize Israel’s long-term right to exist.

Palestinians themselves barely exist in Obama’s memoirs. The 44th president constantly deprives them of independent agency while displaying a lackluster knowledge of both their history and Israel’s. “Palestinian leaders have too often missed opportunities for peace…and yet none of that negated the fact that millions of Palestinians lacked self-determination and many of the basic right that even citizens of non-democratic countries enjoyed.”

Yet, Palestinian leaders didn’t “miss” opportunities for peace—as noted above, they rejected them on numerous occasions. And in so doing they prevented their people from having a state. But the majority of Palestinians live under the rule of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas; if they lack “basic rights” it is hardly Israel’s fault. Indeed, it is quite clearly that of the Palestinian leaders.

Obama similarly errs when he claims that Arafat successor Mahmoud Abbas expressed “unequivocal recognition of Israel” and a “long-standing renunciation of violence.” Abbas himself has said otherwise. In Nov. 2, 2015 remarks at the U.N.—delivered while Obama was President—Abbas called all of Israel “an occupation.” On Sept. 16, 2015, Abbas encouraged terror attacks, exclaiming: “We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way to Allah.” Abbas has also refused to quit paying salaries to those who carry out terrorist attacks against Israelis—a long-standing policy which, despite violating the very terms of the Oslo peace process, Obama declines to mention (The Jerusalem Post, “PA Hiding Terrorist Salaries from Donor Countries in Financial Reports,” May 6, 2020)

Obama fails to tell the truth about the current positions of Abbas, the PLO or Hamas. But he writes that the platform of Israel’s Likud Party “had once included total annexation of the Palestinian territories.” In fact, Likud leaders have, over the last several decades, withdrawn from land in exchange for promises of peace, from Israeli premier Menachem Begin’s 1982 withdrawal from the Sinai to Netanyahu’s withdrawal from Hebron. By contrast, the PLO’s “platform”—or more specifically Articles 17, 18 and 19 of its charter—remain unchanged: Israel’s existence is “illegal.”

Ironically, Obama writes that Israeli premier “Netanyahu’s reluctance to enter into peace talks was born of Israel’s growing strength” whereas “the reluctance of Palestinian president Abbas was born of weakness.” Obama writes about Netanyahu’s “conditional support for a two-state solution,” but is seemingly unperturbed by Abbas’s rejection of numerous offers for statehood and his failure to so much as recognize Israel’s legitimacy. Later, he asserts that “Netanyahu could blame the absence of peace on Abbas’s weakness while doing everything he could to keep him weak.”

Yet, in both 2014 and 2016, Netanyahu agreed to U.S. proposals to restart negotiations and he had participated in talks during the Wye River Agreement in 1998. As the leader of a democratic country, Netanyahu was arguably far more constrained than Abbas, an autocrat, who refused to hold elections and exiled and imprisoned political opponents and critics. Netanyahu has to answer to both an independent judiciary and legislature and to manage a cabinet often filled with rivals and competitors. Abbas is a law unto himself. (for details see The Times of Israel, “The Growing Autocracy of the Palestinian Authority,” Oct. 7, 2017).

Obama also disingenuously claims that his “friendships with certain critics of Israeli policy, including an activist and Middle East scholar named Rashid Khalidi” as well as his being a “black man with a Muslim name” led to his being castigated as anti-Israel and “possibly antisemitic.” Race and names, however, have nothing to do with it; Israel itself has plenty of black and Muslim citizens. Further, a July 2008 Maagar Mohot survey in Israel found that more Israelis preferred to see Obama elected over his then-opponent, Republican Sen. John McCain. A May 2009 poll by the Begin-Sadat Center also showed that a majority of Israelis held a favorable view of the new president. Contra to Obama’s insinuation, it wasn’t his race or his name that resulted in skepticism towards his intentions.

Nor is Khalidi merely an “activist and scholar.”

A 1978 New York Times report from Beirut noted that Khalidi “works for the PLO.” Similarly, a 1976 Los Angeles Times report refers to Khalidi as a “PLO spokesperson.” A sympathetic 1979 documentary about the PLO, The Gun and the Olive Branch, even featured interviews with Khalidi—who was identified as a “PLO spokesperson.” Obama’s “friend” worked for the PLO at a time when it was still a U.S.-designated terror group and actively waging a war against Israel in Lebanon (Martin Kramer, “Khalidi of the PLO,” Oct. 30, 2008).

But it is not merely Obama’s associations that have led to accusations of anti-Israel bias.

Indeed, his own comments show that he completely fails to understand the Israel-Islamist conflict. Although he notes that he did his “best to understand not only the logic but also the emotions behind an ancient and seemingly intractable conflict,” Obama comes up short. His latest memoir, strewn with revisionist history and littered with omissions—all of them one-sided—speaks for itself.

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