Roving thoughts and provocations

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Obama’s Palestinian Veto: Let’s Be Honest

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting at the United Nations, September 21, 2011

Over the past few days, much has been written about the Palestinian bid for UN recognition of its statehood and Washington’s opposition to it. But the real importance of last week’s events at the UN does not lie with the US response itself, but with the effect that response has had on the international community. For now, the Palestinian bid must be reviewed by a special UN committee, a process that will take weeks or months, thus postponing any immediate reckoning with the veto threatened by the Obama Administration. But for the first time, there is a broad recognition of the emptiness of the American claim that the US is uniquely qualified to bring the Israel-Palestine conflict to an end, and that it may instead be the main obstacle to peace.

This recognition marks a dramatic shift from only two years ago. In his speech in Cairo in June 2009, Obama seemed to announce a new American commitment to fairness, international law, and a two-state solution when he proclaimed that:

the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

In his speech at the UN General Assembly last week, however, Obama reserved his compassion for those responsible for the Palestinians’ misery. “Let’s be honest,” he said. “Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it,” and Israeli citizens have been killed by suicide bombers on their buses. “These are facts, they can not be denied,” he said. As noted by The New York Times’s Ethan Bronner, the speech could have been written by an Israeli government official: “It said nothing about Israeli settlements, the 1967 lines, occupation, or Palestinian suffering, focusing instead on Israeli defense needs.”

Moreover, Obama’s depiction of today’s Israel was neither honest nor factual. Far from waging repeated wars on Israel, a decade ago its neighbors offered to establish full normal relations, including diplomatic recognition, trade and security—an offer Israel has to this day spurned and rejected. The earlier Arab hostility to Israel which Obama invoked is as relevant to Netanyahu’s policies as the Soviet Union’s hostility to America is to Obama’s policies.

There is little point in engaging Obama’s apologia for Israel’s rejectionism because from everything known about this man and his intelligence, no one in the UN audience thought he himself believes a word of it. However, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Foreign Minister, was ecstatic, declaring “I am ready to sign onto this speech with both hands.” Obama should ponder what he has wrought when his speech is acclaimed by a man whose racist views about Palestinians, and Arabs in general—having described Arab-Israeli members of the Knesset as a “fifth column,” proposed forced population transfers to rid Israel of its non-Jewish population, and called for the execution of any Arab Member of Knesset who meets with Hamas officials—would have disqualified him from any governmental position in any other democratic country.

But Obama’s inconsistencies are only part of the problem. More troubling is his affirmation of a principle which, if taken seriously, would nail down the coffin into which US policy has placed the peace process. Obama has now declared repeatedly—before, during and following his speech—that the UN cannot give Palestinians their state. A Palestinian state can only result from an agreement reached in direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

The former editor of The Harvard Law Review surely knows that national self-determination is a “peremptory norm” in international law that obliges the UN to implement that right. Obama’s principle would subject Palestinian self-determination to the approval of an Israeli government, a majority of whose ministers are charter members of a caucus in Israel’s Knesset that is committed to incorporating the entire West Bank into the Greater Land of Israel, notwithstanding Netanyahu’s recent acceptance of a two state solution, a declaration that few Israelis take seriously.

And yet, paradoxically, Obama’s surrender to domestic political expediency in a presidential election campaign year has offered new hope for a change in direction away from the American-sponsored peace process. That peace process has been one of the great frauds of recent diplomatic history, having served as a cover for Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank. It has by now succeeded in establishing some 600,000 Israelis in former Palestinian areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The international community has until now abided the US-led peace process out of the belief that precisely because of America’s one-sided support for Israel, it has unique leverage to persuade the Israeli government to accept a fair resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians. Obama’s speech at the UN has finally shattered that expectation. No one who was in that audience any longer believes that America is the indispensable party for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Indeed, it has become painfully clear that America is “uniquely” obstructing the process, using its influence in Western Europe and elsewhere to shield Israel from international pressures that might change its rejectionist stance.

The conventional wisdom on this subject has maintained that Israelis must be reassured of their security to accept the compromises necessary for a peace accord. If threatened by sanctions or criticism seen by them as intended to challenge Israel’s legitimacy, they will only harden their position and adopt a bunker mentality. It is useless wisdom, not because it is a false description of the Israeli reaction to outside pressure, but rather because the Israeli government acts no differently when no one is threatening it and when its interlocutors are moderates who unequivocally oppose violence and seek to come to an accommodation with Israel.

As noted above, that is how Israeli governments have acted since 2002 when the Arab countries offered to normalize relations with Israel, and that is how they continue to act even as terrorist threats have been largely eliminated in the West Bank—in great part because of the Palestinians’ own efforts led by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

As a result of this US-supported intransigence, there is now a growing openness by other members of the international community to bypass the US and pursue new avenues that offer greater hope for ending Israel’s occupation and creating a Palestinian state. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, for example, openly rejected America’s position in his address to the UN immediately following Obama’s speech. Russia was never fully aboard, and neither Egypt, nor Jordan, nor Saudi Arabia will again defer to America on this issue, as they have in the past. What hope there is now for rescuing a two-state solution rests with this emerging disillusionment with America’s leadership of the peace process and with the international community’s new openness to measures—by governments and civil society—that are far more likely to change Israel’s cost/benefit calculations for its colonial ambitions.

This new international backing for the Palestinians could easily be compromised, however, if Abbas is not more careful with his rhetoric. Having recognized the State of Israel within its internationally recognized 1967 lines, it is one thing for him to refuse to pronounce further on the Jewish character of the State of Israel, as Israeli leaders have asked him to do. However, his omission, in his UN speech, of any mention of a Jewish historical connection to the Holy Land while citing the Christian and Muslim connections prompts mistrust in the Palestinian leadership and risks the loss of international support.

It must also be stressed that the international support for the Palestinian cause manifested at the UN will not bring about significant change if it does not continue to be inspired by Palestinians themselves. It was Abbas’ speech, daring to say “no” to the US (and to the hapless Quartet) that brought his audience at the UN repeatedly to its feet. In turn, it transformed Abbas’ own image from that of a passive politician trying to live up to Israel’s standards for an acceptable “peace partner” into a courageous leader of a national liberation movement.

If Palestinians are to retain their painfully acquired support, Abbas must develop and implement effective strategies for non-violent Palestinian resistance that will hold the world’s attention and turn the “Palestinian Spring” he promised in his speech from slogan to reality.

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