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For Barack Obama’s orbit, this was supposed to be a week of nostalgia and reflection. Celebrating the 15-year anniversary of the 44th president's historic rise to the White House, former aides gathered in Chicago in recent days, and the former president — who has generally kept a low profile since leaving office — is stepping into the spotlight for interviews and speeches.
But Obama has upstaged any saunter down memory lane with one major phrase that’s going to reverberate through the national media and Washington in the coming days.
“Nobody’s hands are clean.”
That’s what Obama told his former staffers at “Pod Save America” when asked about the current violence in the Middle East. In an excerpt released yesterday of an interview that will run in the coming days, Obama emphasized shared responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that goes back decades — and cautioned listeners against ignoring the complexities of the roots of the bloodshed.
Yes, Obama said Hamas’s attack was “horrific.” But, he continued, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and “what’s happening to Palestinians” is also “unbearable.”
“If you want to solve the problem, then you have to take in the whole truth. And you then have to admit nobody’s hands are clean, that all of us are complicit to some degree,” he said, arguing that the entire world bears responsibility for allowing the decades-long conflict to fester.
On the one hand, that posture isn’t entirely out of character for the former president — at least on the substance. Obama had a notoriously frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who ignored the American president’s attempts to ease tensions in the region, which included a push for an end to Israeli settlement expansion into Palestinian territory, warnings in his last days as president that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would be “explosive” and undermine long-term peace efforts and an embrace of a two-state solution recognizing a free Palestinian state based on 1967 borders (which was also President George W. Bush's position, though now it seems almost like a pipe dream for the Palestinian cause).
But Obama’s remarks were jaw-dropping for many other reasons.
The sentiment appears to go against decades of U.S. orthodoxy staunchly backing Israel, even among Democratic leaders in Washington — though, in recent days, some Democratic senators have started calling for a humanitarian pause on Israel’s counteroffensive to help Palestinians.
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Indeed, the remarks are a striking jab at not only Israel, but against Obama’s own former vice president.
Joe Biden's longstanding and relatively closer relationship with Netanyahu has led the current president to underscore Israel’s right to defend itself first and foremost.
Obama's remarks also buck the company line Democratic leaders have been using on this matter. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell that calls for a ceasefire “would be such a gift to Hamas because they would spend whatever time there was a ceasefire in effect rebuilding their armaments, creating stronger positions to be able to fend off an eventual assault by the Israelis.” And former Speaker Nancy Pelosi similarly parroted the “gift for Hamas” line.
The timing is also striking.
Obama rarely weighs in on political matters, and yet chose to engage on one of the most contentious topics du jour. It comes as the world is still reeling from headlines about 1,400 people — mostly Israelis — being massacred, babies being slaughtered and about 240 taken as hostages. Plus, the rise of antisemitism on college campuses that has made Jewish students fear for their safety.
Even more eye-popping are the blunt words he chose — “nobody’s hands are clean” — which will almost certainly be used by critics of Israel as they push for a ceasefire. They may even quickly be lumped into those notorious, evocative phrases politicians used in moments of passions, such as Bush’s notorious “mission accomplished.”
As our colleague Alex Ward observed to Playbook this morning, Obama’s remark underscored one of the trademarks of his presidency: stepping back from emotionally charged issues to dissect them in ways he deemed rational — a trait that critics over his eight years in the Oval Office said made him appear aloof and unfeeling. Obama essentially used three minutes to say “it’s complicated,” suggesting passions on both sides were partly to blame for the complications. Experts of the conflict would generally agree with that broad frame, though it’s rare for a current or former senior U.S. official to discuss the issue like that.
Obama’s comments will strike a chord with a growing swath of the Democratic base. On Saturday, pro-Palestinian groups took their protests to the White House and to streets across the nation to call for an end to Israel’s retaliatory bombings. Their demands come as thousands of Palestinian civilians are killed in Gaza — where 2 in every 5 deaths are children, according to Save the Children.
While Alex Ward reports that Obama’s comments were off the cuff, his choice of words certainly seemed intentional for several reasons. For starters, unlike the many gaffe-prone pols out there, Obama rarely puts his foot in his mouth. He’s an experienced politician who knows how to coolly sidestep questions he’s loath to answer.
It’s also the second time that Obama has spoken out against the Israel-Hamas war with a message emphasizing shared culpability. Last month, he warned in a statement that Israel’s retaliatory efforts cutting off food and water to Gaza, killing civilians “could ultimately backfire” by hardening Palestinian attitudes toward the Jewish state, weakening international support and undermining long-term peace efforts.
This almost certainly won’t be the end of the conversation on Obama’s remarks. Keep an eye out for pro-Israeli groups’ reaction to his comments, as well as Republicans who will seize on them to argue that Democrats aren’t fully behind Israel. We’ll also be watching to see how Democrats — particularly Jewish Democrats — respond.