After witnessing the weird, dissonant political theater surrounding Bibi Netanyahu's visit to the United States in May, it is difficult to tell whether it is the best of times or the worst for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Is the conflict at an impasse that augurs more horrible war, chaos and bloodshed? Or is the very severity of the situation a sign that the logjam can be broken because the parties and the international community may listen to alternative voices and embrace unconventional approaches? It is also possible that both are true.
Without doubt, relations between Israel and the United States, or, specifically, between the Israeli prime minister and the American president, are in the deep freeze. Obama would never have embraced the phrasing of “1967 borders” in his Middle East speech last week had he not believed that all was lost as far as Netanyahu is concerned. Though every president over the past few decades – and US policy in general – has endorsed 1967 borders (with land swaps), none has been explicit about it until Obama. In truth, though Israel often talks about “not having a partner” for Palestinian peace, it is the president who does not see an Israeli partner for peace when he looks at its current leader.
However daring, Obama's statement seems to have no ongoing peace strategy undergirding it, as this New York Times editorial notes. It seems part of the trademark piecemeal strategy Obama has adopted since he took office. He calls for a worthy goal, such as a settlement freeze or 1967 borders, but has no idea how to get there.
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For his part, Netanyahu, too, has given up on his relationship with Obama. That's why he tried to go over his head with a speech to a joint session of Congress. Needless to say, the speech was met with standing ovations by the rapturous Congressional audience of both Democrats and Republicans eager to show their fealty to the Israel lobby. It didn't hurt the Israeli prime minister that his speech took place on the backdrop of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC) annual policy conference being held at the same time.
But as Rob Malley told The New York Times, Netanyahu earned at best a pyrrhic victory. Congress doesn't set US foreign policy; the executive branch does. A president who wants to make an Israeli prime minister's life miserable can do so – as Bill Clinton did during Netanyahu's first term as prime minister (the latter lost the next election), and as George Bush Sr. did to Yitzhak Shamir, who lost his next election. It remains to be seen whether Obama has either the interest or the stomach to play this game of political hardball. When the chips are down, the president seems much more interested in shoring up his political flanks, finding common ground with Republicans and advancing his domestic agenda.
When a president's foreign policy flounders, as this one's has regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict, then a single-issue, single-minded ideologue like Netanyahu can make hay. For Netanyahu, both at home and abroad, there is really only one issue: maintaining the occupation, maintaining the settlement enterprise and ensuring the continuity of the Greater Land of Israel. In some ways, it's much easier for such a politician to best an all-rounder like our president, who juggles a host of issues as part of his political agenda.
Netanyahu's rejectionist doctrine was there for all to see in his speeches to AIPAC and Congress. No to sharing Jerusalem. No to the right of return. Add to that the demand that Palestinians recognize Israel not as a sovereign nation only, but as a Jewish state. The result is a perfect storm of intransigence.
A little reality-based fact-checking is in order regarding claims and statements made by Obama and Netanyahu during their various public statements on the conflict last month.
During their joint White House press conference on May 20, Obama tried to find common ground with Netanyahu, so the former raised once again the red herring of Hamas' alleged refusal to recognize the State of Israel. But Netanyahu, too, refuses to recognize Palestine within 1967 borders. If Israel is going to insist on Palestinians fulfilling preconditions for negotiations, why shouldn't Israel full some on its end as well? Obama continued with the mantra that Hamas, “is not a partner for a realistic peace process,” thus refusing to acknowledge that the Palestinians do not see Israel under Netanyahu as a “realistic peace partner” either.
Rather than laying out a “vision for peace,” the Israeli prime minister issued demands of the Palestinians as if they were a conquered vassal state:
For there to be peace, Palestinians will have to accept a few facts as a basic reality … Israel cannot go back to the 1967 lines because these lines are indefensible. They don't take into account demographic changes that have taken place over the past 40 years … We're going to have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan Valley.
The insistence that Palestine recognize Israel as a Jewish state is particularly noxious to Palestinians. They rightly ask, what business is it of ours to determine the nature of Israel? That is an issue for Israelis themselves to work out. Perhaps Israeli Jews like Netanyahu should be reminded that there are over 1 million Israeli Palestinian citizens who may have a different perspective on the matter. Why should residents of Palestine tell their cousins that they have to give up their vision of Israel as a democratic state that doesn't privilege one religion or ethnic group over another?
In his speech to Congress, Israel's prime minister made the claim that Israel's Palestinian citizens were the only free Arabs in the Middle East:
We're proud in Israel that over 1 million Arab citizens of Israel have been enjoying these [democratic] rights for decades.
Of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel's Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights.
Now, I want you to stop for a second and think about that. Of those 300 million Arabs, less than one half of 1 percent are truly free, and they're all citizens of Israel.
“Stop and think about” the fact that this is a false statement. Israeli Palestinians do not enjoy “real” democratic rights – especially when compared to Israeli Jews. Their political parties may not enter into governing coalitions, which severely dilutes their political power. As a result, their towns and villages receive a pittance of government support in comparison to that enjoyed by Jewish municipalities.
Israeli Palestinian Knesset members are routinely hounded by police and security investigations that result in the stripping of their privileges or their being driven from the country, as the former Balad Party leader Azmi Bishara was. Community activists are routinely arrested, tried and imprisoned for alleged security offenses. Unfortunately, all of this is done by Netanyahu's security forces, while he dreams in an alternate universe of “real democratic rights” for this Israeli minority.
Israel's leader also stretched reality in other ways, saying of Israeli settlers, “The vast majority of the 650,000 Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines reside in neighborhoods and suburbs of Jerusalem and greater Tel Aviv.”
Note that he's inflated the number of settlers from the credible estimate of approximately 500,000 in order to make it appear that an even more sizable number of Israelis have joined the settler phenomenon. And instead of acknowledging that they are settlers and that they live beyond the internationally accepted Green Line, he transforms them into ordinary Israelis living in the suburbs of Israel's two major cities. In other words, they're just like you and me.
The only problem with this articulation is that settlers are as much residents of suburban Tel Aviv or Jerusalem as the residents of Vancouver, British Columbia are residents of suburban Seattle, or residents of Windsor, Ontario dwell in the suburbs of Detroit. In other words, geographic proximity does not obscure the fact that there is an internationally recognized border that divides settlements from Israel proper.
The Israeli leader brought out the 40-year-old Israeli talking points about the “nine-mile” strip that was Israel at its narrowest point, the “Auschwitz borders,” so-called by the late diplomat Abba Eban and later revived by writer Alan Dershowitz.
Further, Netanyahu exploited the august venue of a presidential briefing to spread a notion rejected by almost all analysts of Islamist terrorism: that Hamas is, “the Palestinian version of al-Qaeda.” The only thing the two have in common is that both support the Palestinian struggle for national rights. The only group in Gaza that supports al-Qaeda is, in fact, at war with Hamas.
The final “fact” that the Palestinians have to accept, according to Netanyahu, is that the only right of return they will have is to a Palestinian state. What's curious about this is that a Palestinian refugee who fled from a town or village within Israel will be deemed to have satisfied his right of return by settling in a country he never lived in, and a town nowhere near the one from which he was originally expelled. Why would a refugee from Ramleh or Jaffa want to “return” to Ramallah or Nablus or Jericho? This may be resettlement, but it isn't “return.” And Palestinians don't merely want resettlement; they want recognition of the injustice committed against them through the Nakba.
In arguing against the Palestinian right of return, Netanyahu adds another historical distortion to his presentation by claiming that Jews were, “expelled from Arab lands in roughly the same number” as Palestinian refugees from Israel. First, most Arab Jews, except in a few cases, weren't “expelled,” though many left feeling some sense of discrimination against them. And while it's possible that 1 million Jews immigrated to Israel from Arab lands, most were not refugees physically driven from their countries in the same sense as the Palestinians were.
The Israeli leader brags that “tiny Israel” absorbed the Jewish refugees while the Arab states didn't absorb Palestinian refugees. Another case of historical blinders: Israel wanted these refugees to populate the “tiny” new state. In some cases, Israel actually fomented unrest through false-flag terror attacks in Arab countries which stampeded Jews to leave for Israel. However, no Arab states needed or wanted Palestinians refugees, since the former believed they had been expelled unjustly. Why would an Arab country feel under any obligation to relieve Israel of the burden of guilt for its treatment of its former Palestinian citizens?
The piece de la resistance was Netanyahu's dismissal, during his White House news conference, of the right of return: “That's not gonna happen. Everybody knows it's not gonna happen. And I think it's time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly: it's not gonna happen.”
While all this is quite depressing, the very fact that we may be at the nadir of the conflict can bring hope. There is nothing like a looming catastrophe to focus the mind and drive people to consider alternatives they might never have embraced. The Nakba Day demonstrations, in which thousands of Palestinians and their supporters rushed Israel on five different borders, paralleled the same sort of people power that fueled democratic revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. While Israel responded predictably with the killings of nearly 20 unarmed protesters, the very lack of proportionality of the response has rallied international sympathy for the effort to destroy the occupation and bring justice for Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinian unity deal between the previously warring factions of Hamas and Fatah also threw a wrench into the best-laid plans of Israeli and US leaders. The latter have been used to a Palestinian movement reacting to events rather than shaping them. As the Palestine Papers released by Al Jazeera point out, the Palestinians were in the, “I'll take what I can get mode” until this most recent development, and neither Israel nor the United States offered them much. Now, the Palestinians seem to have developed a bit of a spine.
Until recently, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been seen as a radical outlier political strategy. It seemed controversial to punish Israeli civilians for the sins of their government. Many Israeli liberals, who might be expected to support BDS or at least sympathize with its goal of overthrowing the occupation, spoke out forcefully against the idea of boycotting Israel. But the flexibility of BDS, which has offered its supporters a menu of political tactics and strategies, and the sclerotic rejectionism of Israel's approach has only rallied new supporters to BDS. It may never become as powerful a weapon as the sanctions movement was against apartheid South Africa, but it will undoubtedly gain strength the longer Israeli intransigence looms.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Palestinians have developed a new strategy of bringing their quest for statehood to the United Nations General Assembly (GA) in September, where it will likely be overwhelmingly approved. Such a vote would bring the matter to the UN Security Council (SC), where President Obama has promised Israel he would veto it. This would put Obama in the unenviable position of vetoing within a six-month period two resolutions which actually agreed with stated US policy. A few months ago, the US vetoed an SC resolution opposing settlements. Come September, we will veto one endorsing a Palestinian state, something the United States has supported since at least 1993.
Once again, the United States will have been outmaneuvered by history and our own lumbering policy. Instead of being supple, flexible and forward-thinking, we show ourselves to be as nimble as a Word War II-era battleship. Barack Obama should consider that the United States is no longer the world's top dog. Perhaps in the past, if the United States said something that was against US interests was not going to happen, it wouldn't. No longer. We run the risk of being left behind by events.
Just look at what happened during the Arab Spring. We'd supported Middle East tyrants like Mubarak for decades. The status quo suited us fine, but poor Egyptians and Tunisians had other ideas, and they succeeded in rallying their compatriots to topple the autocrats. What did we do? Mostly, we stood by and watched. Yes, Obama made a few good statements, as he is so good at doing. But once again, there was no long-term strategy in place for supporting moves toward democracy throughout the region. That's why we've been caught so flat-footed regarding Syria, as well.
Time waits for no man, nor for any nation. If we attempt to slow the train of Palestinian statehood as it leaves the station, we run the risk of becoming irrelevant to the processes that are moving in its favor, and to the entire spirit of the Arab Spring.
Returning to the GA vote, once Palestinian statehood is approved, many countries will either recognize the new nation, if they haven't already done so, or upgrade relations if they aren't already at the highest level. Palestine will apply and automatically be accepted as a member of certain UN bodies, including the International Criminal Court (ICC), thereby setting up more confrontation with Israel and the United States. At this point, it becomes feasible for Palestine to bring charges against Israel for breaching international law by holding on to conquered territory for over 40 years in violation of UN resolutions. It also becomes conceivable for the ICC to take up various war crimes charges against Israel, including those outlined in the Goldstone report.
There have been promising new developments regarding Egypt, which lost little time since the fall of Mubarak by recalibrating its relations with Hamas (and by extension, with Israel). For the first time in four years, Egypt has permanently reopened its Gaza border crossing. This will mean the death knell for the joint Israel-Egypt siege. This long-term punishment of Gaza for electing Hamas as its leaders was a lynchpin of Israeli policy. For Israel, Hamas is a terrorist movement, plain and simple. Hamas is to be ostracized from civilized discourse. And until recently, Israel had engineered a relatively unified international approach to the Islamist movement, which unequivocally rejected it as a serious partner for negotiations.
But now, the times are changing. When Israel announced it was punishing the Palestinian Authority (PA) for Fatah's unity deal with Hamas by withholding $90 million in tax revenue it collects on behalf of the PA, Hillary Clinton and the EU said: “not so fast.” Israel backed down. That would never have happened even a few years ago, when Israel withheld such internationally negotiated payments for long periods of time and at will.
Recently, the same Turkish aid group behind the ill-fated Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza, which resulted in a horrifying Israeli attack and the death of nine Turkish nationals, announced it would send another ship next month. Israel has begged the United States and UN to talk Turkey out of running the blockade, to little avail. Last week, the Turkish foreign minister ratcheted up the pressure a notch when he warned Israel that his country would not take “Israeli provocation” in the matter lying down. It brought to mind images of Turkish gunboats accompanying the aid ship to Gaza in defiance of Israel's wishes, or perhaps a high seas confrontation a la the Cuban missile crisis.
So, which is it? Should we feel hopeful, or on the edge of a precipice – or perhaps a bit of both?