Tag Archives: Benjamin Netanyahu

What was Wrong with Obama’s Speech in Jerusalem

24 Mar

 

 

            It was master-crafted as an ingratiating speech by the world’s most important leader and the government that has most consistently championed Israel’s cause over the decades. Enthusiastically received by the audience of Israeli youth, and especially by liberal Jews around the world. Despite the venue, President Obama’s words in Jerusalem on March 21st seemed primarily intended to clear the air somewhat in Washington. Obama may now have a slightly better chance to succeed in his second legacy-building presidential term despite a deeply polarized U.S. Congress, and a struggling American economy if assessed from the perspective of workers’ distress rather than on the basis of robust corporate profits. 

 

            As for the speech itself, it did possess several redeeming features. It did acknowledge that alongside Israeli security concerns “Palestinian people’s right of self-determination, their right to justice must also be recognized.” This affirmation was followed by the strongest assertion of all: “..put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes.” To consider the realities of the conflict through Palestinian eyes is to confront the ugly realities of prolonged occupation, annexationist settlement projects, an unlawful separation wall, generations confined to the misery of refugee camps and exile, second-class citizenship in Israel, ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem, and a myriad of regulations that make the daily life of Palestinians a narrative of humiliation and frustration. Of course, Obama did not dare to do this. None of these realities were specified, being left to the imagination of his audience of Israeli youth, but at least the general injunction to see the conflict through the eyes of the other pointed the way toward empathy and reconciliation.

 

            Obama also encouraged in a helpful way Israeli citizen activism on behalf of a just peace based on two states for two peoples. A bit strangely he urged that “for the moment, put aside the plans and process” by which this goal might be achieved, and “instead..build trust between people.” Is this not an odd bit of advice? It seems a stretch to stress trust when the structures and practice of occupation are for the Palestinians unremittingly cruel, exploitative, and whittle away day after day at the attainability of a viable Palestinian state. But this farfetched entreaty was coupled with a more plausible plea: “I can promise you this: Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.” There is some genuine hope to be found in these inspirational words, but to what end given the present situation.

 

            In my opinion the speech was deeply flawed in three fundamental respects:

                        –by speaking only to Israeli youth, and not arranging a parallel talk in Ramallah to Palestinian youth, the role of the United States as ‘dishonest broker’ was brazenly confirmed; it also signaled that the White House was more interested in appealing to the folks in Washington than to those Palestinians trapped in the West Bank and Gaza, an interpretation reinforced by laying a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl but refusing to do so at the tomb of Yasir Arafat. This disparity of concern was further exhibited when Obama spoke of the children of Sderot in southern Israel, “the same age as my own daughters, who went to bed at night fearful that a rocket would land in their bedroom simply because of who they are and where they live.” To make such an observation without even mentioning the trauma-laden life of children on the other side of the border in Gaza who have been living for years under conditions of blockade, violent incursions, and total vulnerability year after year is to subscribe fully to the one-sided Israeli narrative as to the insecurity being experienced by the two peoples.

 

                        –by speaking about the possibility of peace based on the two state consensus, the old ideas, without mentioning developments that have made more and more people skeptical about Israeli intentions is to lend credence to what seems more and more to be a delusionary approach to resolving the conflict. Coupling this with Obama’s perverse injunction to the leaders of the Middle East that seems willfully oblivious to the present set of circumstances makes the whole appeal seem out of touch: “Now’s the time for the Arab world to take steps towards normalizing relations with Israel.” How can now be the time, when just days earlier Benjamin Netanyahu announced the formation of the most right-wing, pro-settler government in the history of Israel, selecting a cabinet that is deeply dedicated to settlement expansion and resistant to the very idea of a genuine Palestinian state? It should never be forgotten that when the Palestinian Liberation Organization announced back in 1988 that it was prepared to make a sustained peace with Israel on the basis of the 1967 borders. By doing this, the Palestinians were making an extraordinary territorial concession that has never been reciprocated, and operationally repudiated by continuous settlement building. The move meant accepting a state limited to 22% of historic Palestine, or less than half of what the UN had proposed in its 1947 partition plan contained in GA Resolution 181, which at the time was seen as grossly unfair to the Palestinians and a plan put forward without taking account of the wishes of the resident population. To expect the Palestinians to be willing now to accept significantly less land than enclosed by these 1967 borders to reach a resolution of the conflict seems highly unreasonable, and probably not sustainable if it should be imprudently accepted by the Palestinian Authority.

 

                        –by endorsing the formula two states for two peoples was consigning the Palestinian minority in Israel to permanent second-class citizenship without even being worthy of mention as a human rights challenge facing the democratic Israel that Obama was celebrating. As David Bromwich has pointed out [“Tribalism in the Jerusalem speech,”] http://mondoweiss.net/2013/03/tribalism-jerusalem-speech.html Obama was also endorsing a tribalist view of statehood that seem inconsistent with a globalizing world, and with secularist assumptions that a legitimate state should never be exclusivist in either its religious or ethnic character. Obama went out of his to affirm the core Zionist idea of a statist homeland where all Jews can most fully embrace their Jewishness: “Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea: the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own.” And with embedded irony no mention was made of the absence of any Palestinian right of return even for those who were coerced into fleeing from homes and villages that had been family residences for countless generations.

            Such a regressive approach to identity and statehood was also by implication attributed to the Palestinians, also affirmed as a a lesser entitlement. But this is highly misleading, a false symmetry. The Palestinians have no guiding ethno-religious ideology that is comparable to Zionism. Their quest has been to recover rights under international law in the lands of their habitual residence, above all, the exercise of their inalienable right of self-determination in such a manner as to roll back the wider claims of settler colonialism that have been so grandiosely integral to the Greater Israel vision and practice of the Netanyahu government. And what of the 20% of the current population of Israel that lives under a legal regime that discriminates against them and almost by definition is a permanent consignment to second-class citizenship. Indeed, Obama’s speech was also an affront to many Israeli post-Zionists and secularists who do not affirm the idea of living under in a hyper-nationalist state with pretensions of religious endowments.

 

            In my view, there are two conclusions to be drawn. (1) Until the rhetoric of seeing the realities of the situation through Palestinian eyes is matched by a consideration of the specifics, there is created a misleading impression that both sides hold equally the keys to peace, and both being at fault to the same extent for being unwilling to use them.  (2) It is a cruel distraction to urge a resumption of negotiations when Israel clearly lacks the political will to establish a viable and independent sovereign Palestinian state within 1967 borders and in circumstances in which the West Bank has been altered by continuous settlement expansion, settler only roads, the separation wall, and all the signs are suggesting that there is more of the same to come. Making matters even worse, Israel is taking many steps to ensure that Jerusalem never becomes the capital of whatever Palestinian entity eventually emerges, which is a severe affront not only to Palestinians and Arabs, but to the 1.4 billion Muslims the world over.

 

            In retrospect, worse than speech was the visit itself. Obama should never have undertaken such the visit without an accompanying willingness to treat the Palestinian reality with at least equal dignity to that of the Israeli reality and without some indication of how to imagine a just peace based on two states for two peoples given the outrageous continuing Israeli encroachments on occupied Palestinian territory that give every indication of permanence, not to mention the non-representation and collective punishment of the Gazan population of 1.5 million. Obama made no mention of the wave of recent Palestinian hunger strikes or the degree to which Palestinians have shifted their tactics of resistance away from a reliance on armed struggle.  It is perverse to heap praise on the oppressive occupier, ignore nonviolent tactics of Palestinian resistance and the surge of global solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and then hypocritically call on both peoples to move forward toward peace by building relations of trust with one another. On what planet has Mr. Obama been living? 

 

            

Reflections on the Abbas Statehood/Membership Speech to the UN General Assembly

29 Sep

            There is a natural disposition for supporters of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination to suppose that the Palestinian statehood bid must be a positive initiative because it has generated such a frantic Israel effort to have it rejected. Despite the high costs to American diplomacy in the Middle East at this time of regional tumult and uncertainty, the United States has committed itself to exercise its veto on Israel’s behalf if that turns out to be necessary. To avoid the humiliation of disregarding the overwhelming majority opinion of most governments in the world, the United States has rallied the former European colonial powers to stand by its side, while leaning on Bosnia and Colombia to abstain, thereby hoping to deny Palestine the nine votes it needs for a Security Council decision without technically casting a veto. On the side of Palestinian statehood one finds China, Russia, India, South Africa, Brazil, Lebanon, Nigeria, and Gabon, the leading countries of the South, the main peoples previously victimized by colonial rule. Is not a comparison of these geopolitical alignments sufficient by itself to resolve the issue of taking sides on such a litmus test of political identity? The old West versus the new South!

            Add to this the drama, eloquence, and forthrightness of Mahmoud Abbas’s historic speech of 23 September to the General Assembly that received standing ovations from many of the assembled delegates. Such a favorable reception was reinforced by its contrast with the ranting polemic delivered by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who insulted the UN by calling it ‘the theater of the absurd’ while offering nothing of substance that might make even mildly credible his strident rhetoric claim to support ‘peace,’ ‘direct negotiations.’ and ‘a Palestinian state.’ The deviousness of Netanyahu was made manifest when a few days later the Israeli Government announced that it had approved 1,100 additional housing units in the major East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo. This was a bridge too far for even Hilary Clinton who called the move ‘counter-productive’ and Europeans regarded as deeply disappointing and confidence-destroying, so much so that Netanyahu was openly asked to reverse the decision. There are a variety of other indications that additional settlement expansion and ethnic cleansing initiatives will be forthcoming from Israel in the weeks ahead. Are not such expressions of Israeli defiance that embarrasses even their most ardent governmental supporter enough reason by itself to justify a Security Council recommendation of Palestine statehood at this time? Would it not be worthwhile at this crucial moment to demonstrate the wide chasm separating increasing global support for the pursuit of justice on behalf of the Palestinian people from this domestically driven American reliance on its ultimate right of veto to block Palestinain aspirations? Would it not be well to remind Americans across the country, including even its captive Congress, that its own Declaration of Independence wisely counseled ‘a decent respect for the opinions of mankind’? If ever the use of the veto seems ill-advised and deeply illegitimate, it is in this instance, which the Obama Administration seems to acknowledge, or otherwise why would it use its leverage to induce allies and dependent states to go along with its opposition to Palestinian membership in the UN?

            Turning to the speech itself, the language of recognition may be more notable than the substance. Never before in an international forum had the voice of the Palestinian Authority spoke of Israel’s occupation policies so unabashedly–as ‘colonial,’ as involving ‘ethnic cleansing,’ as imposing an unlawful ‘annexation wall,’ as creating a new form of ‘apartheid.’ With admirable directness, Israel was accused of carrying out the occupation in a manner that violated fundamental rules of international humanitarian law, and cumulatively amounted to the commission of crimes against humanity.

             In the course of his speech Abbas tried hard to reassure the Palestinian diaspora on two matters of deep concern: that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) will continue to represent the Palestinian people, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the most fundamental of Palestinian rights at stake, the right of self-determination. The issue here is lost on almost all observers of the conflict, that the Palestinian Authority (PA) of which Abbas is president is a subsidiary body that was created by the PLO with a temporary mandate to administer Palestinian territory under occupation, and thus it was important to allay suspicions that the PLO was an intended casualty of the statehood bid so as to territorialize the conflict and give the Abbas and PA leadership complete representational control over the Palestinian role at the UN. The deep concern here relates to the adequacy of representation relating to the Palestinians living in refugee camps in neighboring Arab countries or in exile around the world. In the Palestinian National Council, 483 of its 669 members are drawn from Palestinians not living under occupation. President Abbas used the clearest possible language to reaffirm the position of the PLO just prior to enumerating the five conditions guiding his leadership role: “I confirm, on behalf of the PLO, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, which will remain so until the end of the conflict in all its aspects and until the resolution of the final status issues.”

            In the background of this representation issue is an anxiety that Palestinian refugee rights will be forgotten or marginalized in the course of striking a deal that is build around a ‘land for peace’ formula. Again Abbas inserted some reassuring language in his speech to the effect that peace will depend on “a just and agreed upon solution to the Palestine refugee issue in accordance with resolution 194,” which unconditionally affirmed a Palestinian right of return. Relevantly, Netanyahu in his speech alluded to the “fantasy of flooding Israel with millions of Palestinians,” which is his way of both dismissing the rights of Palestinian refugees, especially as derived from the massive dispossession of Palestinian in 1948, and insisting on the Palestinian recognition of Israel as ‘a Jewish state.’ This insistence combines  demographics with democracy, contending that ever since the promise of Lord Balfour on behalf of the British Government to a leader of the Zionist movement in 1917 there were continual acknowledgements that Israel was a Jewish state. Netanyahu made short shrift of the claims to dignity and equality of the 1.5 million Palestinians existing under an array of discriminatory burdens by saying merely that Israel treats its minorities in a manner that respects their human rights. It should be recalled that the Balfour Declaration, a notoriously colonial disposition, did not promise the Jewish people a state, but rather ‘a national home,’ and that it was to be established in a manner that did not interfere with the ‘civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ Human rights and democracy have become significantly universalized during the last several decades. This development implies that the governing structures of society embodied in the state must renounce any claim of ethnic or religious particularity. Political legitimacy in the 21st century should not be accorded to any state that claims to be a Jewish state, an Islamic state, or a Christian state. Such statist neutrality should be set forth as an element of legitimate statehood by formal action at the United Nations. Such a declaration would impose a limit on the right of self-determination by denying to peoples the right to establish ethnic or religious states. In a globalizing world ethnic and religious diversity are present in every major state, and needs to be respected by unfurling a banner of equality that grants religious freedom to all faiths and allows collective identities to be expressed without prejudice.

            For some widely respected Palestinian activists and NGOs, these assurances were not enough. With the formidable intellectual support of Oxford professor, Guy Goodwin-Gill, the very idea of Palestinian statehood compromises the representational rights of diaspora Palestinians within UN arenas of decision, and potentially deforms future negotiations by according predominance to territorial priorities. Guy-Goodwin’s analysis was built around the general view that a state could never adequately represent people outside its borders. Given existing realities this would mean disenfranchising the Palestine refugee and exile population that comprises a majority of ‘the Palestinian people’ who are as a collectivity the holder of the overarching entitlement embodied in the right of self-determination. Such a view may be technically correct, and operationally prudent, but it overstates the clarity of the legal implications of Palestinian statehood and UN membership, while understating the degree to which what is being questioned are the psycho-political priorities of the current PA/PLO leadership.  To further strengthen and promote the unity of the Palestinian global solidarity movement it is crucial to continue to seek accommodation between territorial and non-territorial dimensions of the Palestinian struggle, and thus to minimize intra-Palestinian divergencies, including the ongoing rift with Hamas. Here again Abbas had some reassuring words to say about the future implementation of the reconciliation agreement reached between the PLO and Hamas in June, but the failure of Hamas to endorse the statehood/membership bid at this time raises doubts about whether cooperation between these two political tendencies of Palestinians living under occupation will be forthcoming in the future.

           There are, against this background, some further grounds for concern that result from gaps or disappointing formulations in the Abbas speech. One glaring gap was the failure to address the accountability issues associated with the non-implemented recommendations of the Goldstone Report arising out of war crimes allegations associated with massive attacks (Israeli code named ‘Operation Cast Lead”) on Gaza between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009.  In an important statement issued by the Palestinian Centre of Human Rights, jointly with several respected human rights NGOs, the PLO was given responsibility for doing their best to see that these recommendations for referral to the International Criminal Court be carried out.  In the words of the statement, “should the PLO choose not to pursue the accountability process initiated by the Report of the UN Fact-Finding Mission – at the expense of the Statehood initiative – this will amount to the prioritization of political processes over victims’ fundamental rights; indicating acceptance of the pervasive impunity that characterizes the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.”

         Although implicit in the Abbas speech, the systematic refusal of Israel to comply with international law, was not accorded the emphasis in deserves. Given this reality, it was comic irony for Netanyahu to invoke international law in relation to the captivity of a single Israel soldier, Gilad Shalit; of course, international law should be observed in relation to every person, but when Israel subjects the whole of Gaza to a punitive blockade that has lasted for more than four years, imprisons thousands of Palestinians in conditions below international legal standards, and refuses to implement the near unanimous Advisory Opinion of the World Court on the unlawfulness of its annexation wall, it has lost all credibility to rely on international law on those few occasions when it works to its advantage.

           Even more disturbing, because so relevant to the present posture of the conflict, was the rather bland expression of willingness on the part of the PLO to resume direct negotiations provided that Israel imposes “a complete cessation of settlement activities.” As there is no chance that this condition will be met, it may not be so important for Abbas to question the value of direct negotiations given their repeated failure to move the parties any closer to peace during the past 18 years. In fact, Israel has cloaked settlement expansion, ethnic cleansing, and a variety of encroachments on what might have at one time become a viable Palestinian state, with the charade of periodic peace talks held under the non-neutral auspices of the United States. What Abbas could have done more effectively, given the unlikelihood of an affirmative Security Council recommendation on UN membership, is to couple the statehood/membership bid with the demand of a new framework for future negotiations that includes both Israeli commitments to abandon settlement expansion in East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank, and more importantly, selects a state or regional organization to provide non-partisan auspices for the talks. Such a demand would have made clear that the PLO/PA was no longer willing to play along with the Oslo game that has more than doubled the settler population and allowed Israel to invest in an expensive settler only infrastructure that is unlikely to be ever voluntarily dismantled. It is past time to declare the Oslo framework of direct negotiations as terminally ill, futile, and illegitimate, and incapable of drafting a roadmap that leads anywhere worth going! For the UN to be one of the four Quartet members, especially given the American hegemonic control over the diplomacy on the conflict, also warranted a harsh comment by Abbas.

          What the future holds is more uncertain than ever. The mainstream media has tended to criticize both Israel and the PA/PLO as if their respective behavior was equivalent. For instance, the Palestinian statehood/membership initiative is treated as equally provocative as the Israeli announced intention to expand the unlawful Gilo settlement. Such an attitude does belong in the theater of the absurd, equating a completely legal, arguably overdue plea to be given an upgraded status at the UN with a criminal encroachment on basic Palestinian rights associated with territory under occupation, as recognized by Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

           Whether Israel will follow through on its threats to ‘punish’ the PA for undertaking this completely legal initiative remains to be seen. Already there is troublesome indications of widespread settler violence in the West Bank that is either unopposed or backed by Israeli military and security units. As has been observed by the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, Israel will never have a more moderate partner for peace than the Ramallah leadership, and if it undermines its viability it will be demonstrating once again that it has lost its capacity to promote its national interests. It has showed this aspect of decline most dramatically by picking a fight with a resurgent Turkey, and then missing one opportunity after another to repair the damage, which is what Ankara earlier had hoped would happen. As regional developments move toward greater support for the Palestinian struggle, Israel is allowing what might have been a historic opportunity for a sustainable peace to slip away. An acute problem with extremism, whether of the Likud or Tea Party variety, is that it subordinates interests and rationality to the dictates of an obsessive and emotive vision that is incapable of calculating the balance of gains and losses in conflict situations, being preoccupied with all or nothing outcomes, which is the antithesis of diplomacy. This is a path that inevitably produces acute human suffering and often leads to disaster. It is time for Israelis to abandon such a path for their own sake and the sake of others!

Another UN Failure: The Palmer Report on the Flotilla Incident of 31 May 2010

11 Sep


 

            When the UN Secretary General announced on 2 August 2010 that a Panel of Inquiry had been established to investigate the Israeli attacks of 31 May on the Mavi Marmara and five other ships carrying humanitarian aid to the beleaguered people of Gaza there was widespread hope that international law would be vindicated and the Israelis would finally be held accountable. With the release of the Palmer Report these hopes have been largely dashed as the report failed to address the central international law issues in a credible and satisfactory manner. Turkey, not surprisingly, responded strongly that it was not prepared to live with the central finding of the 105 page report reaching the astonishing conclusions that the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip is lawful and could be enforced by Israel against a humanitarian mission even in international waters.

 

            Perhaps this outcome should not be so surprising after all. The Panel as appointed was woefully ill-equipped to render an authoritative result. Geoffrey Palmer, the Chair of the Panel, although a respected public figure, being the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and an environmental law professor, was not particularly knowledgeable about either the international law of the sea or the law of war. And incredibly, the only other independent member of the Panel was Alvaro Uribe, the former President of Colombia, with no professional credentials relevant to the issues under consideration, and notorious both for his horrible human rights record while holding office and forging intimate ties with Israel by way of arms purchases and diplomatic cooperation that was acknowledged by ‘The Light Unto The Nations’ award given by the American Jewish Committee that should have been sufficient by itself to cast doubt on his suitability for this appointment. His presence on the panel compromised the integrity of the process, and made one wonder how could such an appointment can be explained, let alone justified.  Turkey’s agreement to participate in such a panel was itself, it now becomes clear, a serious diplomatic failure. It should have insisted on a panel with more qualified, and less aligned, members.

 

The other two members of the panel were designated by the governments of Israel and Turkey, and predictably appended partisan dissents to those portions of the report that criticized the position taken by their respective governments. Another unacceptable limitation of the report was that the Panel was constrained by its terms of reference that prohibited reliance on any materials other than what was presented in the two national reports submitted by the contending governments. With these considerations in mind, we can only wonder why the Secretary General would have established a formal process so ill-equipped to reach findings that would put the legal controversy to rest and resolve diplomatic tensions, which it has certainly failed to do. Such deficient foresight is itself one of the notable outcomes of this unfortunate UN effort to achieve the peaceful resolution of an international dispute.

 

            Even such an ill-conceived panel did not altogether endorse Israeli behavior on 31 May. The panel found that Israel used excessive force and seemed legally and morally responsible for the deaths of the nine passengers on the Mavi Marmara, instructing Israel to pay compensation and issue a statement of regret. In other words the Palmer Report seems to fault seriously the manner by which the Israeli enforced the blockade, but unfortunately upheld the underlying legality of both the blockade and the right of enforcement, and that is the rub. Such a conclusion contradicted the earlier finding of a more expert panel established by the Human Rights Council, as well as rejected the overwhelming consensus that had been expressed by qualified international law specialists on these core issues. A gross inadequacy of the report was to separate the assessment of the blockade as if exclusively concerned with Israeli security, and ignore its essential role in imposing an intolerable regime of collective punishment on the population of Gaza that has lasted for more than four years.

 

            While the Panel delayed the report several times to give diplomacy a chance to resolve the contested issues, Israel and Turkey could never quite reach closure. There were intriguing reports along the way that unpublicized discussions between representatives of the two governments had agreed upon  a compromise arrangement consisting of Israel’s readiness to offer Turkey a formal apology and to compensate the families of those killed as well as those wounded during the attack, but when the time for announcing such a resolution of this conflict, Israel refused to go along. In particular, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seemed unwilling to take the last step, claiming that it would demoralize the citizenry of Israel and signal weakness to Israel’s enemies in the region. More cynical observers believed that the Israeli refusal to resolve the conflict was a reflection of domestic politics, especially Netanyahu’s rivalry with the even more extremist political figure, Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who was forever accusing Netanyahu of being a wimpy leader and made no secret of his own ambition to be the next Israeli head of state. Whatever the true mix of reasons, the diplomatic track failed, despite cheerleading from Washington that openly took the position that resolving this conflict had become a high priority for American foreign policy. And so the Palmer Report assumed a greater role than might have been anticipated for what was supposed to be no more than a technical inquiry about issues of law and fact. After the feverish diplomatic efforts failed, the Palmer panel seemed to offer the last chance for the parties to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution based on the application of the international law and resulting recommendations that would delimit what must be done to overcome any violations that had taken place during the attack on the flotilla.

 

            But to be satisfactory, the report had to interpret the legal issues in a reasonable and responsible manner. This meant, above all else, that the underlying blockade imposed more than four years ago on the 1.6 million Palestinians living in Gaza was unlawful, and should be immediately lifted. On this basis, the enforcement by way of the 31 May attacks was unlawful, an offense aggravated by being the gross interference with freedom of navigation on the high seas, and further aggravated by producing nine deaths among the humanitarian workers and peace activists on the Mavi Marmara and by Israeli harassing and abusive behavior toward the rest of the passengers. Such conclusions should have been reached without difficulty by the panel, so obvious were these determinations from the perspective of international law as to leave little room for reasonable doubt. But this was not to be, and the report as written is a step backward from the fundamental effort of international law to limit permissible uses of international force to situations of established defensive necessity, and even then, to ensure that the scale of force employed, was proportional, respectful of civilian innocence, and weighed security claims against harmful humanitarian effects. It is a further step back to the extent that it purports to allow a state to enforce on the high seas a blockade, condemned around the world for its cruelty and damaging impact on civilian mental and physical health, a blockade that has deliberately deprived the people of Gaza of the necessities of life as well as locked them into a crowded and impoverished space that has been mercilessly attacked with modern weaponry from time to time.

 

            Given these stark realities it is little wonder that the Turkish Government reacted with anger and disclosed their resolve to proceed in a manner that expresses not only its sense of law and justice, but also reflects Turkish efforts in recent years to base regional relations on principles of fairness and mutual respect.  The Turkish Foreign Minister, realizing that the results reached by the Palmer Panel were unacceptable, formulated his own Plan B. This consisted of responses not only to the report, but to the failure of Israel to act responsibly and constructively on its own by offering a formal apology and setting up adequate compensation arrangements. Israel had more than a year to meet these minimal Turkish demands, and showed its unwillingness to do so. As Mr. Davutoglu made clear this Turkish response was not intended to produce an encounter with Israel, but to put the relations between the countries back on ‘the right track.’ I believe that this is the correct approach under the circumstances as it takes international law seriously, and rests policy on issues of principle and prudence rather than opts for geopolitical opportunism. As Davutoglu said plainly, “The time has come for Israel to pay a price for its illegal action. The price, first of all, is being deprived of Turkey’s friendship.”

 

            And this withdrawal of friendship is not just symbolic. Turkey has downgraded diplomatic representation, expelling the Israeli ambassador from Ankara and maintaining inter-governmental relations at the measly level of second secretary. Beyond this all forms of military cooperation are suspended, and Turkey indicated that it intends to strengthen its naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. As well, Turkey has indicated that it will initiate action within the General Assembly to seek an Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice as to the legality of the blockade. What is sadly evident is that Israeli internal politics have become so belligerent and militarist that the political leaders in the country are hamstrung, unable to take a foreign policy initiative that is manifestly in their national interest. For Israel to lose Turkey’s friendship is second only to losing America’s support, and coupled with the more democratic-driven policies of the Arab Spring, this alienation of Ankara is a major setback for Israel’s future in the region, underscored during the last several days by the angry anti-Israeli protests in Cairo.

 

            What is more, the Turkish refusal to swallow the findings of the Palmer Report adopts a political posture that is bound to have a popular resonance throughout the Middle East and beyond. At a time when some of Turkey’s earlier diplomatic initiatives have run into difficulties, most evidently in Syria, this stand on behalf of the victimized population of Gaza represents a rare display by a government of placing values above interests. The people of Gaza are weak, abused, and vulnerable. In contrast, Israel is a military powerhouse, economically prospering, a valuable trading partner for Turkey, and having in the background an ace in the hole– the United States ever ready to pay a pretty penny if it could induce a rapprochement, thereby avoiding the awkwardness of dealing with this breakdown between its two most significant strategic partners in the Middle East. We should also keep in mind that the passengers on these flotilla ships were mainly idealists, seeking nonviolently to overcome a humanitarian ordeal that the UN and the interplay of national governments had been unable and unwilling to address for several years. This initiative by civil society activists deserved the support and solidarity of the world, not discouragement from the UN and a slap on the wrist by being chastened by the Palmer report’s view that their actions were irresponsible and provocative rather than empathetic and courageous.

 

            Israel has managed up to now to avoid paying the price for defying international law. For decades it has been building unlawful settlements in occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. It has used excessive violence and relied on state terror on numerous occasions in dealing with Palestinian resistance, and has subjected the people of Gaza to sustained and extreme forms of collective punishment. It attacked villages and neighborhood of Beirut mercilessly in 2006, launched its massive campaign from land, sea, and air for three weeks at the end of 2008 against a defenseless Gaza, and then shocked world opinion with its violence against the Mavi Marmara in its nighttime attack in 2010. It should have been made to pay the price long ago for this pattern of defying international law, above all by the United Nations. If Turkey sustains its position it will finally send a message to Tel Aviv that the wellbeing and security of Israel in the future will depend on a change of course in its relation to both the Palestinians, its regional neighbors, and to the international community. The days of flaunting international law and fundamental human rights are no longer policy options for Israel that have no downside. Turkey is dramatically demonstrating that there can be a decided downside to Israeli flagrant lawlessness. 

Turkey’s June 12 Elections and Eurocentrism

9 Jun

The following post is written in collaboration with Hilal Elver, my Turkish wife. It is posted a few days before Turkish elections this Sunday that will have a great impact on Turkey‘s political future. As a sign of changes in the world, the pre-election attention given to these elections in Turkey is a notable example. Turkey has emerged as ‘a success story’ in a global setting where most of the news is interpreting various forms of failure, especially in meeting global challenges such as food security, climate change, and economic instability and recession.

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            The Economist leader headline in its June 4th issue is revealing: “The best way for Turks to promote democracy would be to vote against the ruling party.” It reveals a mentality that has not shaken itself free from the paternalism and entitlements of the bygone colonialist days. What makes such an assertion so striking is that The Economist would know better than to advise American or Canadian or Israeli citizens how to vote. And it never did venture such an opinion on the eve of the election of such reactionary and militarist figures as George W. Bush, Stephen Harper, or Benjamin Netanyahu. Are the people of Turkey really so politically backward as to require guidance from this bastion of Western elite opinion so as to learn what is in their own best interest?

 

            Surely it is a strange recommendation even putting aside its interventionary aspects. As The Economist itself admits the progress Turkey has made internally and internationally since the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. Its economy has flourished, civilian control of the governing process has been greatly strengthened, creative efforts have been undertaken to solve outstanding conflicts involving the Kurdish minority and Cyprus, and Turkey has fashioned a creative and constructive foreign policy that has greatly enhanced its regional and global reputation. With such an unquestioned record of achievement, it seems strange to go so far beyond calling attention to some serious lingering problems in Turkey by instructing the people of Turkey to vote for an opposition party that attacks the AKP relentlessly but offers no alternative vision for how it might improve upon its policies.

 

As Stewart Patrick put it recently in the pages of Foreign Affairs, the influential American journal on global policy: “The dramatic growth of Brazil, China, and India—and the emergence of middle-tier economies such as Indonesia and Turkey—is transforming the geopolitical landscape and testing the institutional foundation of the post-World War II liberal order.” Notable here is the recent acceptance of Turkey as a major regional and global actor, something that was not present in the political imagination before this period of AKP leadership.

 

And if we look beyond Eurocentric perspectives, the rise of Turkey is even more dramatic. In the Middle East, it is Turkey, although outside the Arab orbit, that has most inspiring to those leading the movements that have produced the Arab Spring. Public opinion polls in the region again and again rank Recip Tayyip Erdogan as the world’s most admired leader. It is a mistake to suggest that these movements will opt for ‘the Turkish model,’ as each national situation has its own originality, but all share a passionate insistence that destiny of the country will be shaped by its own people according to their values and aspirations, and without imitation of others. It is possible to learn from the Turkish experience in dealing with such tendentious issues as the future participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics or the desirability of pursuing a foreign policy based on ‘zero problems with neighbors’ while maintaining this fierce insistence on the nationalist character of political transformation.

 

At the same time, in a world lacking effective and legitimate global leadership, it would be a mistake to overlook the enormous contributions made by Turkish diplomacy over the course of the prior decade. AKP foreign policy, as principally shaped by Ahmet Davutoglu, provides a reasoned, peace oriented voice of intelligent moderation that draws upon deep historical and cultural affinities, and suggests a very different political profile than that associated with such other regional voices as those emanating from Iran and Saudi Arabia.

 

Such an affirmation of the AKP achievements is not meant to be an uncritical endorsement of its policies. There are disturbing features of its approach to internal dissent, including the imprisonment of a large number of its domestic critics, especially journalists, and recent examples of police brutality in responding to anti-government demonstrations. There are also widely discussed worries about Mr. Erdogan’s ambitions, contentions that he is a closet autocrat as well as an immensely skillful politician in the populist mode, and it might be reassuring to the electorate as a whole if the elections do not give the AKP a parliamentary two-thirds super-majority that would allow the amendment of the 1982 Constitution without the need for a ratifying referendum. The fear is that with such control, 376 members out of a total of 550, the AKP could push through a presidential system that would allow Mr. Erdogan to become the dominant political leader in the country for another ten years. However, a new constitution is necessary. There is little disagreement among the Turkish voters about the desirability of a new constitution to replace the outdated 1982 Constitution, a byproduct of military rule. Aside from its statist and ultra-nationalist features, the present Turkish constitution keeps alive unpleasant memories of repressive rule when abuse of the citizenry was the order of the day.

 

Secular Turks mainly worry about certain forms of constitutional reform that they fear will keep the AKP in power forever and will somehow challenge their European modernist life style by such measures as Internet censorship instilling Islamic morals with respect to sexual content or impose restrictions on the public availability of alcohol. In the background, as well, is an unresolved struggle for economic and cultural primacy among elites with different geographic and class roots in Turkish society, the AKP bringing to the fore new energies that come from the more traditional atmosphere of Anatolian towns and villages, as opposed to the CHP elites that are concentrated in the main urban centers of western Turkey: Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara.

 

Instead of telling Turks how to vote, The Economist might have more appropriately warned Turkish voters  (if their concern was the future wellbeing of the country) against the perils of the free market economy that the AKP has so enthusiastically endorsed, and especially encouraged while dramatically expanding trade with neighboring states, especially to its East.   Despite the impressive economic growth of recent years, there seems to be too great a readiness in Ankara to go along with the sort of neoliberal globalization that minimizes the regulation of markets, fails to address climate change, indulges speculative finance, and generates ever greater disparities between rich and poor within and among countries.

 

Even here in relation to the world economy the Turkish record is better than its harshest critics are ready to admit. Recently Turkey took over from Belgium, itself symbolic of a power ship on the global stage, as host for the next ten years of the UN efforts to assist the poorest countries in the world, known as the Least Developed Countries or LDCs. It hosted a mega-conference of 192 member states of the UN in Istanbul last month, and made it clear through statements by Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Davutoglu to the assembled delegations that Turkey’s vision of its role was to make sure that economic justice was being achieved through this UN process, an assessment that took issue with the efforts of the prior 40 years of grand rhetoric and miserable performance. Expressive of this intention, the Turkish Foreign Minister established an Intellectual Forum of independent academic specialists gathered from around the world that ran sessions parallel to the inter-governmental conference, offering a critical perspective on the entire UN approach to extreme poverty and societal vulnerability.

 

Perhaps, the greatest deficiency in the current Turkish political scene is not the quality of AKP leadership, but the absence of a responsible and credible opposition that offers the citizens some alternative policies on key questions. Until the current elections the main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), has been a party of ‘No,’ agitating secular anxieties about ‘a second Iran’ and withholding all appreciation for what the governing party has managed to achieve. Turkey, as with any vibrant democracy, needs a robust opposition, preferably with a genuine social democratic orientation, both to heighten the quality of policy debate and to make the electoral process more responsive to the values of and challenges facing Turkish society, but this will not be achieved at this stage by voting the AKP out of power. We have the impression that its new leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, seeks to move the party’s program and tactics in this direction, and he has moved away from the polarizing language and approach of the impoverishing Baykal period of CHP decline, but dislodging the old guard of the party has limited the adjustment. In contrast, the Erdogan leadership has exhibited a pragmatic capability to respond intelligently to changes in the political setting.

 

The Economist and others outside of Turkey should certainly be free to comment on AKP policies and the record of its government, but telling voters how to vote goes too far, and recalls the worst sides of the European relationship to the Middle East. We live in an increasingly integrated and interconnected political, economic, and cultural global space within which critical dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation are indispensable if the future holds any promise of becoming peaceful, fair, and sustainable for the peoples of the world. In this regard, it is crucial that the imperatives of such free expression be reconciled with respect for the dynamics of self-determination, above all the autonomy of national electoral procedures.  It is disappointing that Eurocentricism has not yet become an embarrassment for the editors of The Economist.   

Obama’s AIPAC Speech: A Further Betrayal of the Palestinian People

24 May


            On Sunday, May 22, 2011, President Barack Obama spoke at an AIPAC Conference, three days after giving his decidedly pro-Israeli speech at the State Department on his broader Middle East foreign policy. It was a shockingly partisan speech to the extremist lobbying group that has the entire U.S. Congress in an unprecedented headlock that has become the envy of even the National Rifle Association. Of course, I assume that Obama’s handlers regarded a speech to AIPAC as obligatory given the upcoming presidential election in 2012. The dependence of political candidates for almost any significant elective office in the United States on Jewish electoral and funding support has become an article of secular political faith, and particularly so for a national office like the presidency. Nevertheless, the enactment of this political ritual by Obama seemed excessive even taking full account of the role of Israeli Lobby as to be worth noting and decrying.

 

            What is worse, the mainstream media typically misconstrued the AIPAC event in a manner that compounds the outrage of the speech itself. For instance, the NY Times headline says it all: “Obama Challenges Israel to Make Hard Choices for Peace.” As Obama pointed out himself in his remarks, “there was nothing particularly original in my proposal; this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations.” The supposed hard choices involve Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, only restating the generalized international consensus that has often been articulated by American leaders and in a variety of authoritative settings. This is hardly a hard choice, especially as interpreted by the White House’s former Special Envoy, George Mitchell, as including Israel’s perceived security requirements. That is, the land swaps now seem to embrace not only the unlawful settlement blocs that had been conceded by George W. Bush, but now appear to incorporate Netanyahu over the top demands for strategic depth at the expense of Palestinian land, demanding the appropriation of portions of the Jordan Valley along with the deployment of Israeli troops within a hypothetical demilitarized Palestinian state.

 

            What is more, the alleged hard choice is never set against the background of the aftermath of the 1948 War that deprived of about half of the territory they had been given according to the UN partition plan embodied in General Assembly Resolution 181. And as is widely known, the Palestinian rejected that partition as being grossly unfair, imposed from without and awarding the Jewish minority population about 56% of historic Palestine. In effect, the willingness of the Palestinians, expressed first by the 1988 session of the Palestinian National Council to live within the 1967 borders meant agreeing to have their Palestinian state on 22% of the British mandate. This was indeed a hard choice! The land swaps involving settlement blocs, and their bypass roads, and further security zones claimed are all encroachments upon that 22%, and the fact that such further Palestinian concession can be proposed is indicative of just how unfair has become the American led approach to the resolution of the underlying conflict. It is further notable that this fundamental territorial redefinition of the two-state consensus is never acknowledged or even mentioned. In effect, what was thought to be two states in 1947 was dramatically diminished by what became the contours of two states after the 1967 War, and has been further diminished in dramatic form ever since by the settlement process and the various unilateral changes introduced by Israel in the course of administering Jerusalem.    

 

            The speech to AIPAC is significant not for these non-existent ‘hard choices,’ but for the scandalously obsequious pleading tone adopted by an American president that acknowledges with pride everything about the U.S. Government’s relationship to the conflict that should disqualify it from ever again having a shred of diplomatic credibility as a third party intermediary. Starting with the fawning “[w]hat a remarkable, remarkable crowd” to his heartfelt words of sympathy for Israeli victims of violence without even a scintilla of empathy for the far, far greater suffering daily endured by the entire Palestinian people: dispossessed, living under occupation, blockade, in refugee camps and exile, or as persons displaced physically and psychologically.

 

            The passage on military assistance to a prosperous Israel should have come as a shock to American taxpayers but passes without notice by the Western media.  I quote in full because it so shamelessly overlooks Israeli defiance of international law and its militarist outlook toward the future: “..I and my administration have made the security of Israel a priority. It’s why we’ve increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels. It’s why we’re making our most advanced technologies available to our Israeli allies. It’s why, despite tough fiscal times, we’ve increased foreign military financing to record levels. And that includes additional support—beyond regular military aid—for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.” It is not surprising that there was loud applause after each sentence in the paragraph just quoted, but it is surprising that an American president would try to please even an AIPAC audience this abject manner. After all, others are listening! Or should be!

 

            Obama similarly brushes aside any concern about the unlawfulness of the Israeli occupation or its uses of force against a defenseless population in Gaza in its massive attacks launched at the end of 2008, and carried on for three weeks. Obama brushes aside the Goldstone Report by name, suggesting that its assessment of Israel’s wrongdoing somehow challenges Israel’s right of self-defense when in actuality the Goldstone legal analysis does just the opposite, and far more ardently and unconditionally than appropriate, in my view. There is not a word about the Flotilla Incident of a year ago or the recent excessive use of lethal force at the Israeli borders in response to the ‘right of return’ demonstrations associated with the Palestinian remembrance of the 2011 Nakba.

 

            Going beyond the negativity of his State Department comments, Obama mimics Netanyahu in condemning the moves toward Palestinian Authority/Hamas reconciliation and unity. He has the temerity to insist that “the recent agreement between Fatah and Hamas poses an enormous obstacle to peace.” Actually, reasonably considered, the agreement should have been welcomed as an indispensable step toward creating the possibility of peace.

 

            Not a word of challenge is uttered by Obama in front of this AIPAC audience about settlements, Jerusalem, and refugees. Not a word about the Palestinian ordeal, or diminished horizons of possibility, and no White House plan announced to give a talk before a Palestinian audience. The Obama talk was so outrageously one-sided, so contrary to American strategic interests, that it implicitly suggests that the Palestinians are so weak and passive as to let it slip by in silence. Only a justifiable outburst of Palestinian rage could begin to counter this impression of diplomatic surrender.

 

            Palestinian prudence would go further that an angry reaction. After such a speech the only responsible response by the Palestinian leadership is to conclude once and for all, however belatedly, that it is no longer possible to look to Washington for guidance in reaching a peaceful, just, and sustainable resolution of the conflict. Indeed, to allow such a Washington framing of peace at this point, in light of this Obama/Netanyahu posturing, would further disclose the incompetence and illegitimacy that have long handicapped the Palestinian struggle for self-determination based on a just and sustainable peace and founded on respect for Palestinian rights under international law. 

Obama’s Flawed Approach to the Israel/Palestine Conflict

21 May

            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.

 Legitimacy Confusions

               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.       

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