The New Year has begun with Muslims around the world being taught a lesson in the crudity of racial equations: 400 Palestinian lives equal four Israeli lives.

Reeling from having learnt that over a million Iraqi and Afghan lives equal 3,000 American lives, the logic of this racial mathematics is certainly no new thing. After all, the first U.S. Constitution engaged in just such calculations of human worth, and Katrina demonstrated their ongoing effects. But the lesson has the power to shock every time: the images of Palestinian bodies being pulled out of the rubble in Gaza that flood news reports are unbearable to witness.

Surely the lesson cannot be lost on President-elect Barack Obama. That such violence can be waged on so defenseless a population with the support of the Bush Administration is unconscionable. That Obama chooses to remain silent is nothing short of cowardice.

Why is Israel able to continue its deadly assault on Palestinians in Gaza? Because western governments (and their Arab quislings) are willing to allow the carnage to carry on into day three, four, five … After all, these governments enabled the Israeli blockade of Gaza for the last year and a half, they aided and abetted Israel’s criminal meting out of collective punishment to the population for daring to vote for Hamas.

The mainstream media faithfully reported as true every lie told by the Bush Administration about Iraq. Now the media upholds the fiction that Hamas is responsible for the violence waged by the Israelis. Israel probably calculated, and rightly so as has turned out to be the case, that the support it enjoys from these governments could withstand whatever murmurs of regret politicians might be moved to express by anti-Israeli demonstrations in their capitals.

The current Israeli attack is being attributed by some commentators to the machinations of Israeli politicians jockeying for power in the upcoming elections in that country. But there is another consideration that is far more important. Of all the Middle Eastern countries, it is Israel that stood to lose the most with the incoming Presidency of Barack Obama later this month.

Obama promised to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq and committed his administration to pursuing diplomatic and political solutions ahead of military ones, not only in Iraq, but also in other conflicts within the region. Iran has been strengthened by the U.S. defeat in Iraq, while Israel was out-maneuvered by Hizballah in Lebanon in 2006.

The writing has been on the wall for the Israelis. The carte blanche given to that country by past U.S. administrations to destabilize the region and pursue its territorial ambitions could no longer be counted upon.

The worldwide enthusiasm for the election of Barack Obama signaled a global desire for change, people around the world are sick of the lies and wars, of the guns and bombs.

A return to the rule of law and an end to the Iraq war is what Obama promised, not only to the American electorate, but to the entire world. The election of the first Black President was an ecstatic moment for people of colour around the world, as it was for those white populations sickened by the racism and violence of American empire-building. People around the world took Obama up on his promise of hope, daring to believe that political change was coming.

Whether President-elect Obama will, or can deliver what he promised is a question people of colour passionately debate with eyes wide open. The hope that a Black man will stand up to the racial calculations that turn the ‘native’ into a ‘thing’, as Frantz Fanon put it, is palpable among many Muslims.

Obama’s public comments that he will welcome pressure from movements for social justice won him some time and a measure of credibility. Surely there is no greater cause for social justice than that of the Palestinian people. And Obama is the first U.S. President who seems to understand the nature of the Palestinian crisis prior to his election, as some who know him, including Ali Abunimah, have pointed out.

In one fell swoop, the Israelis have destroyed whatever momentum Obama might have mobilized for a peaceful resolution of the blockade of Gaza and the siege that Gazans and Hamas have endured. Israel has pushed Obama into a corner with this attack, intensifying the suffering of the Palestinian people and making it all but inevitable that retribution will follow.

A state of war with its neighbours benefits Israel’s ambitions in the region, even as it secures support for Zionist lobbies in the western world. During the U.S. election campaign, Vice-President Elect Joe Biden had warned that Obama would be tested early in his presidency. Few expected the challenge to come from a staunch U.S. ally and not from those contesting U.S. power.

Obama’s silence on the Gaza crisis grows more curious by the day; it has already cost him much political capital. He appears weak and ineffectual even before his inauguration, one more symbol of hope capitulating to the realpolitik of the ‘special’ U.S./Israeli relationship.

As a community organizer in Chicago, Obama understood the racial calculations that shape the everyday lives of Black people in the U.S. With a Kenyan father who was a Muslim, Obama surely understands the consequences of such racial calculations at the international level. Palestinians have paid a heavy price for their resistance to Israeli power. As a law professor, Obama most certainly understands the terrible toll of surviving the crimes of an occupying power bent on genocide.

Unfortunately, Obama is missing in action in this first challenge to his Presidency. The Israelis have used his own words to justify their aggression, and Obama has responded with a deafening silence. This does not bode well for the future.

U.S. and Israeli elites have a long history of buying off quislings to further their interests. Obama needs to act quickly to prove he is not one of them.

Sunera Thobani teaches Women’s Studies at the University of British Columbia.

Sunera Thobani

Sunera Thobani teaches Women’s Studies at the University of British Columbia.