There is no world leader that is more skilled at speechmaking than Barack Obama, especially when it comes to inspiring rhetoric that resonates with deep and widely held human aspirations. And his speech on Middle East policy, symbolically delivered to a Washington audience gathered at the State Department, was no exception, and it contained certain welcome reassurances about American intentions in the region. I would point to his overall endorsement of the Arab Spring as a demonstration that the shaping of political order ultimately is a prerogative of the people. Further that populist outrage if mobilized is capable of liberating an oppressed people from the yoke of brutal and corrupt dictatorships, and amazingly to do so without recourse to violence. Obama also was honest enough to acknowledge that the national strategic interests of the United States sometimes take precedence over this preferential option for democracy and respect for human rights. Finally, his proposed $1 billion in debt relief for Egypt was a concrete expression of support for the completion of its revolutionary process, although the further $1 billion tied to an opening to outside investment and a free trade framework was far more ambiguous, threatening the enfeebled Egyptian economy with the sort of competitive intrusions that have been so devastating for indigenous agriculture and industry throughout the African continent.
But let’s face it, when the soaring language is taken away, we should not be surprised that Obama continues to seek approval, as he has throughout his presidency, from the hawks in the State Department, the militarists in the Pentagon, and capitalist true believers on Wall Street. Such are the fixed parameters of his presidency with respect to foreign policy and explain why there is so much disappointment among his former most ardent followers during his uphill campaign for the presidency, who were once energized and excited by the slogan “change, yes we can!” Succumbing to Washington ‘realism’ (actually a recipe for imperial implosion), the unacknowledged operational slogan of the Obama presidency has become “change, no we won’t!”
Obama’s Pro-Israeli Partisanship
With these considerations in mind, it is not at all surprising that Obama’s approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict remains one-sided, deeply flawed, and a barrier rather than a gateway to a just and sustainable peace. The underlying pressures that produce the distortion is the one-sided allegiance to Israel (“Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempt to single it out for criticism in international forums.”). This leads to the totally unwarranted assessment that failure to achieve peace in recent years is equally attributable to Israelis and the Palestinians, thereby equating what is certainly not equivalent. Consider Obama’s words of comparison: “Israeli settlement activity continues, Palestinians have walked away from the talks.” How many times is it necessary to point out that Israeli settlement activity is unlawful, and used to be viewed as such even by the United States Government, and that the Palestinian refusal to negotiate while their promised homeland is being despoiled not only by settlement expansion and settler violence, but by the continued construction of an unlawful barrier wall well beyond the 1967 borders. Obama never finds it appropriate to mention Israel’s reliance on excessive and lethal force, most recently in its response to the Nakba demonstrations along its borders, or its blatant disregard of international law, whether by continuing to blockade the entrapped 1.5 million Palestinians locked inside Gaza or by violently attacking the Freedom Flotilla a year ago on international waters while it was carrying much needed humanitarian aid to the Gazans or the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
At least in Obama’s Cairo speech of June 2009 there was a strong recognition of Palestinian suffering through dispossession, occupation, and refugee status: “..it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have 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. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” Of course, this formulation prejudges the most fundamental of Palestinian entitlements by confining any exercise of their right of self-determination as a people to a two-state straight jacket that may no longer be viable or desirable, if it ever was. And throughout the speech in Cairo there was never a sense that the Palestinians have rights under international law that must be taken into account in any legitimate peace process, taking precedence over ‘facts on the ground.’
But at least in Cairo Obama was clear on the Israeli settlements, or reasonably so: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for the settlements to stop.” Even here Obama is only pleading for a freeze (rather than dismantling what was unlawful). In the new speech settlement activity is blandly referred to as making it difficult to get new negotiations started, but nothing critical is said, despite resumed and intensified settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This unwillingness to confront Israel on such a litmus test of a commitment to a negotiated peace is indicative of Obama’s further retreat from even the pretense of balanced diplomacy as measured against Cairo.
And there were other demonstrations of pro-Israeli partisanship in the speech. On the somewhat hopeful moves toward Palestinian Authority/Hamas reconciliation as a necessary basis for effective representation of the Palestinian people at the international level, Obama confines his comments to reiterating Israeli complaints about the refusal of Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist. What was left unsaid by Obama is that progress toward peace might be made by at last treating Hamas as a political actor, appreciating its efforts to establish ceasefires and suppress rocket attacks from Gaza, acknowledging its repeated acceptance of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders buttressed by a long-term proposal for peaceful co-existence with Israel, and lifting a punitive and unlawful blockade on Gaza that has lasted for almost four years. It is possible that such an approach might fail, but if the terminology of taking risks for peace is to have any meaning it must include an altered orientation toward the participation of Hamas in any future peace process.
A Disturbing Innovation
Perhaps, the most serious flaw in the Obama conception of resumed negotiations, is the separation of the territorial issues from the wider agenda of fundamental questions. This unfortunate feature of his approach has been obscured by Israel’s evident anger about the passage in the speech that affirms what was already generally accepted in the international community: “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.” If anything this is a step back from the 1967 canonical and unanimous Security Council Resolution 242 that looked unconditionally toward “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territory occupied in the recent conflict.”
Obama’s innovation involves deferring consideration of what he calls “[t]wo wrenching and emotional issues..the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.” Leaving Jerusalem out of the negotiating process is in effect an uncritical acceptance of Israel’s insistence that the city as a whole belongs exclusively to Israel. What is worse, it allows Israel to continue the gradual process of ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem: settlement expansion, house demolitions, withdrawal of residency permits and deportations, and overall policies designed to discourage a continued Palestinian presence. It must be understood, I believe, as an unscrupulous American acceptance of Israel’s position on Jerusalem, which is not only a betrayal of legitimate Palestinian expectations of situating their capital in East Jerusalem but also a move that will be received with bitter resentment throughout the Arab world.
Similarly, the deferral of the refugee issue is quite unforgivable. As of 2010 4.7 million Palestinians are registered with the UN as refugees, either living within refugee camps under conditions of occupation or in precarious circumstances in neighboring countries within camps or as vulnerable members of the host country. This refugee status has persisted for more that 60 years despite the clear assertion of Palestinian refugee rights contained in General Assembly Resolution 194 adopted in 1948 and annually reaffirmed: “The refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” This persistence of the Palestinian refugee status six decades later is one of the most notorious denials of human rights that exist in the world today. To remove it from the peace process, as Obama purports to do, is to consign the refugees to an outer darkness of despair, and as such, is a telling disclosure of the bad faith embedded in the most recent Obama rendering of his approach to peace. Those who are dedicated to achieving a just peace for the two peoples—Israelis and Palestinians—are doomed to fail unless the refugees are treated as a core issue that can neither be postponed nor evaded without a grave betrayal of justice.
And finally, Obama does his best to dash Palestinian hopes about their one effort to move their struggle a step forward, gaining their acceptance as a state by the United Nations in September of this year. In a perverse formulation of this reasonable, even belated, Palestinian effort to enlist international support for their claims of self-determination and statehood, Obama resorts to deflating and condescending language: “..efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.” This language is perverse because the Palestinian diplomatic initiative is meant to legitimize itself, not delegitimize Israel. And the BDS campaign and other international civil society initiatives carrying on the ‘legitimacy war’ being waged against Israel by way of the Palestinian solidarity movement are not aimed at delegitimizing Israel, but rather seek to overcome the illegitimacy of such Israeli unlawful policies and practices as the Gaza blockade, ethnic cleansing, wall building in defiance of the World Court, settlement expansion and settler violence, excessive violence in the name of security.
In many respects, Obama’s speech, aside from the soaring rhetoric, might have been crafted in Tel Aviv rather than the White House. It is a tribute to Israel’s extraordinary influence upon the American media that has been able to shift the focus of assessment to the supposed Israeli anger about affirming Palestinian statehood within 1967 borders. It is hardly a secret that the Netanyahu leadership, aside from its shrewd propaganda, is opposed to the establishment of any Palestinian state, whether symbolic or substantive. This much was confirmed by the release of the Palestinian Papers that established rather conclusively that behind closed doors even when the Palestinian Authority made concession after concession in response to Israeli demands, the Israeli negotiating partners seemed totally unresponsive, and appeared disinterested in negotiating a genuine solution to the conflict.
Underneath the Israeli demand for recognition of it character as a Jewish state is the hidden reality of a Palestinian minority of more than 1.5 million living as second class citizens within Israel. The Obama conception of “a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace” seems completely oblivious to the rights of minority peoples and religions. Such ethnic and religious states seem incompatible with the promise of human dignity for all persons living within a political community. Homelands for a people are fine provided they do not encroach on pre-existing rights of others and do not claim exclusivity at the level of society or state. The Jewish claim in Palestine has the force of history behind it, but so Christians and others, and the Balfour certification should not mean much in a post-colonial era. It needs also to be acknowledged that the realization of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine has long been abusive toward the resident population, and now to consign the Palestinians to a homeland behind the 1967 borders sends a regressive message. It offers Israel a covert way to invalidate the claims of refugees expelled in 1948 from Palestine, as well as overlooks the rights and wellbeing of the Palestinian minority living within Israel at present.
American Irrelevance and Palestinian Populism
In a profound sense, whatever Obama says at this point is just more words, beside the point. He has neither the will nor the capacity to exert any material leverage on Israel that might make it more amenable to respecting Palestinian rights under international law or to strike a genuine compromise based on mutuality of claims. Palestinians should not look to sovereign states, or even the United Nations, and certainly not the United States, in their long and tormented journey to realize a just and sustainable destiny for themselves. Their future will depend on the outcome of their struggle, abetted and supported by people of good will around the world, and increasingly assuming the character of a nonviolent legitimacy war that mobilizes moral and political pressures that assert Palestinian rights from below. In this regard, it remains politically significant to make use of the UN and friendly governments to gain visibility and legitimacy for their claims of right. It is Palestinian populism not great power diplomacy that offers the best current hope of achieving a sustainable and just peace on behalf of the Palestinian people. Obama’s State Department speech should be understood as merely the latest in a long series of disguised confessions of geopolitical impotence, but of one thing we can be sure, it will not be the last.