Obama, Israel, and Palestine

From the frenzy that was let loose on President Barrack Obama referring to the 1967 borders in his Middle East speech, one would think that he had announced a major shift in US policy on the Israel/Palestine issue, had abandoned Israel and was now pandering to the Palestinians!

Former Massachusetts Gov. and GOP’s leading presidential candidate Mitt Romney screeched that Obama had “thrown Israel under the bus”. Talk show hosts outdid one another in claiming that Obama was letting down Israel. Glen Beck denounced Obama for “betraying” Israel. Matt Drudge claimed that Obama had sided with the Palestinians. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called it “the most dangerous speech ever made by an American president for the survival of Israel.”

Netanyahu went over the top and immediately issued a statement, just one day prior to his meeting with Obama, rejecting the President’s proposal! His performance, when he did meet the President, was described in the media as “lecturing” to the President. The photographs of the meeting that appeared seemed to support that description. Obama was seen listening to Netanyahu, tight lipped, appearing very much like an errant schoolboy being scolded by the headmaster.

Netanyahu demanded a “reconfirmation of commitments to Israel from 2004”.

The “commitment from 2004” that Netanyahu was referring to is contained in a letter written by President George W Bush in April 2004 to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. It said: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”

What Obama said is, “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.” The 1949 and 1967borders are the same. Obama proposed nothing more nor less than what Bush wrote in 2004, the only change being that he substituted Bush’s “mutually agreed changes” with “mutually agreed swaps.”

Clearly there was no abandoning or betrayal of Israel by Obama.

The reality is that it is not Israel but the Palestinians who have been betrayed by Obama. After his Cairo speech and his support of the recent democracy movement in the Mid East, in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, the Palestinians had high hopes of Obama supporting their just demands. Instead, he has let them down badly and is seeking to thwart their efforts to get a viable, contiguous, independent, sovereign state of their own in an area that is very much less than what is spelt out in the UN partition plan.

At one stage he mentioned “tearing down walls” but alas he was nor referring to the gigantic wall of separation that Israel has built, mostly on Palestinian land. Instead, he was referring to the walls of “corruption of elites who steal from their people; the red tape that stops an idea from becoming a business; the patronage that distributes wealth based on tribe or sect”.

His very first sentence in introducing the subject of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict showed his bias and his insensitivity towards the Palestinians. He said, “For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them”. Yes, that is fear enough, pain enough. But the number of Palestinian children killed by Israel during this “conflict” is far greater than Israeli children killed by Palestinians, on a proportion of approximately hundred to one.

And yet, there is no mention of the fear that Palestinians live under. As for the pain, the Zionists in Israel, and they number in millions, teach their children far greater hatred. The Israeli settlers in the West Bank not only preach this hatred but act it out daily by destroying Palestinian olive orchards, spewing their sewage onto West Bank territory and in a hundred other ways.

Obama did not ignore the Palestinians completely. He did say, “For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own.” As though that is all that they suffered. No mention of the demolition of their homes, destruction of their crops, wave after wave of bombings that devastate their infrastructures and kill hundreds, the curfews, the closures, the checkpoints that keep families apart and prevent the sick from going to medical facilities and children from attending schools.

Though he correctly identified the cause of his administration’s failure to end this conflict, namely continuation of Israeli settlement activity in spite of his having called for its cessation, he sought to put the blame equally on the Palestinians by saying that they “walked away from (peace) talks.” They never did. All that they did was to refuse to allow the Israelis to go on using the “talks” to swallow up more and more of their land in the West Bank and go on building more and more illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. They were more than willing to participate in the talks provided the Israelis stopped their settlement activities. The Israelis refused.

Obama mentioned the world looking “at a conflict that has grinded on and on and on, and sees nothing but stalemate”. Surely the Quartet that was put in charge of the “Road Map” has some responsibility for this. It could have been more assertive. Most certainly it would have helped if the US had used its unique position to put pressure on Israel to cease its construction activities and enter into a serious discussion with the Palestinians about the creation of a Palestinian State.

His remarks that Palestinians’ “ …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” were a clear signal that the US would oppose the Palestinian effort to ask the UN in September to recognize a Palestinian State.

After having admitted that bi-lateral talks have “grinded on and on and on” and have yielded nothing but a “stalemate”, one would have thought that he would support the Palestinian initiative to put an end to an effort to arrive at a solution of the dispute through endless talks and instead put the issue in the hands of the international community. It was, to begin with, wrong to seek a solution through asymmetrical talks between an all-powerful occupying force and the powerless occupied. It was like asking the victim of a theft to negotiate with the thief! Had the international community carried out its duties, acted firmly and resolutely to end Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and parts of Sinai, as it did in the case of Iraqi’s occupation of Kuwait, this “stalemate” would not have occurred.

His remarks that “Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist” were uncalled for. There is nothing to substantiate that Hamas, at present, believes in or promotes “terror” or “rejection”. Nor is there anything to suggest that the Palestinians are opposed to the existence of Israel. What they deny is Israel’s right to exist. It has no such right, except the one given to it by a UN resolution adopted against strong opposition from the indigenous people to dividing up their land and imposing a foreign government on them. The morality, if the not the legality of this very resolution, is, to say the least, questionable.

Obama went on to assert that US friendship with Israel “is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums”. The whole world knows this. It well knows the veto power exercised by the US on numberless occasions to save Israel from UN resolutions critical of its actions. This, in spite of the fact that there is not much evidence of “shared values” between the US and Israel. It will be a sad day indeed for US citizens, and for the world, if the US starts “sharing” the values that Israel at present has.

One can imagine the Palestinians holding their breath when he said that “precisely because of our friendship (with Israel), it’s important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace”.

At last, there would be some frank and straight talk. But that did not happen.

He was off the mark when he said that no peace can be imposed on the Israelis and Palestinians. The international community has an obligation to, and can end an illegal occupation by one country of lands that do not belong to it, and it is its duty to prevent an occupying power from transferring its population, in defiance of international law, on to occupied territory, just as it is the duty of the international community to prevent an occupying power from tyrannizing and terrorizing the people living in the occupied territories and grabbing more and more of their land. To try and put the blame on the Palestinians for these abuses that have been going on for years, in open sight of the international community, is palpably unjustified.

His claim of what “everyone knows” and what “America and the international community can do” is just not true. He said that “a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people”. There are those who believe that a true and lasting peace will come about only if there is a single, secular, democratic state which recognizes the right of all people who now live there to continue living there, and the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral lands as also the right of all Jews to immigrate to this single state to be known as Palestine, and guarantees all its citizens the right to vote and equal treatment.

It must be reiterated that the United Stated may believe in the emergence of two states but more and more are veering to the belief that with the havoc wrought by Israel in the West Bank by dotting it with Israeli settlements all over and “for Jews only” connecting roads, the only feasible solution is a single state.

True that the international community decided that Israel would be a homeland for the Jews. There was and is no sanction, and certainly no mandate for it to be a Jewish state. A single state that acknowledges the right of any Jew anywhere in the world to immigrate to it will effectively make it a homeland for the Jews and offer Jews a far greater area to reside in than Israel. A Jewish state, or any state based on religion is an anomaly in today’s world.

He went on to say, “So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine”. On the face of it, this sounds good. “Viable Palestine” must have sounded like music to Palestinian ears. And who can object to a “secure Israel.” But the devil is in the details, as we shall soon see.

Then came what much of the media went wild over. “We believe 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. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state”.

Though hell was let loose and this was portrayed as a betrayal of Israel, in truth it hit hardest at Palestinians! If there is to be any justice, any respect for international law, Israel must be required to go back to the borders defined in the UN partition resolution that created Israel, not the armistice lines drawn after the 1949 war between Israel and the neighboring Arab states. Palestinians are not bound by it. They were not a party to it. It was agreed to between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries.

Worse. In Obama’s vision, not only is Israel, even before any negotiations on borders have started, awarded all the land it grabbed through military force after its creation up to 1967, but it gets a nod to ask for land swaps!

It needs to be understood that even under 1967 borders, the Palestinian State will comprise of only 22% of the total land the Palestinians occupied before the creation of Israel, a far cry from nearly 50% reserved for it under the UN partition plan.

The swaps, it is argued, are necessary because of “facts on the ground” that have come into existence over the years. These “facts on the ground” are the Israeli settlements that Israel has dotted West Bank with. The international community, including the US, considers these settlements to be illegal. It is strange that the US, that believes so strongly in justice and the rule of law, should lend its support to a solution which enables the party that has been guilty of violating international law in deliberately and knowingly creating these illegal “facts on the ground”, to keep for itself these ill gotten gains.

Besides, there is no adjacent Israeli land of equal strategic and commercial value that Israel can swap. Surely Obama knows that what matters is not just the number of square miles that are involved.

A fundamental principle is at stake here. Does a thief get a right to keep some of what he has robbed provided he gives to the victim some other object of equal size (as distinct from value)?

Any hope that may have been kindled in the breasts of Palestinians by Obama mentioning “sovereign” and “contiguous” with reference to the Palestinian State that he envisaged was short lived.

Almost seconds after uttering those words, Obama spoke about security. Here is what he said; “As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself -– by itself -– against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated”.

In other words, in the name of Israel’s right to self defense, the Palestinian State would not have a military, would no be able to import any weapons (even as Israel continues to receive plane loads and ships full of military hardware from the US and others), would be surrounded by security zones, Israeli military forces already in West Bank would not be withdrawn forthwith but in a phased stage. Though not stated in so many words, all this would mean that Israel would have fly over rights over Palestine and would, for all practical purposes, have full control of the skies over Palestine. And, the “effectiveness of security would have to be demonstrated” – what ever that means. In effect, the Palestinian State would be far from sovereign. The Palestinian State was neutered by Obama before its birth!

One wonders why so much concern is being expressed about Israel’s security vis a vis Palestine. Israel has one of the largest army in the world. It has war ships, bombers, drones, gunships, sophisticated and remote controlled “smart bombs”, and an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Plus it has the support and backing of the most powerful nation in the world. Nor must it be forgotten that Israel defeated the combined military might of several neighboring Arab nations in the region, including Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq.

Palestine has none of the above! It is Palestine that has been subjected to devastating military actions by Israel time and again, not the other way around.

One would have thought that there would be concern about the security and self defense rights of the nascent Palestinian State rather than that of Israel!

There was more. Obama brought up the “recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas” to from a unity government. “How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” he asked.

Till yesterday it was being argued that no meaningful negotiations could be carried on with Fatah because it no longer represented all the Palestinians. Gaza was under the control of Hamas, and there could not be two agreements with two different entities for one single Palestinian State. Now that the two entities have arrived at an agreement to form a unity government, it is being argued that one cannot negotiate with it because of the presence of the other party in the government!

There is a factual misrepresentation in the rhetorical question posed by Obama. The agreement between Fatah and Hamas specifically provides that it is PLO/Fatah that will be in charge of negotiations with Israel. Furthermore, while Hamas disputes Israel’s right to exist, it has shown itself quite willing to let Israel continue to exist. This is a problem that does not exist, except in the minds and tongues of those who want to prevent the coming into existence of a viable, contiguous, independent and sovereign State of Palestine.

If there was anything at all in Obama’s speech to give comfort to the Palestinians, it was his admission that the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees remain to be resolved “in a way that is just and fair.”

There is one thing that the President got right. He said that he was convinced that “the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past……That is the choice that must be made — not simply in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but across the entire region — a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future. It’s a choice that must be made by leaders and by the people, and it’s a choice that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife.”

Obama has got it right on that one. More and more Israelis and Zionists are beginning to realize how wrong and unjust are the actions of the Israeli government. More and more Jews all over the world are beginning to realize that neither their love, respect and reverence for Judaism nor their support for Israel prevents them from being critical of the unjust actions and behavior of the Israeli government but makes it obligatory on them to protest. Even Israeli soldiers and pilots are refusing to be a party to any action in the occupied territories.

And there is a mass awakening among the Palestinian people too. The number of non-violent protests, and their size, is increasing dramatically. Soon it will escalate from passive non-violent protests into what Gandhi called active non-violent non-cooperation.

Add to this fact that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is also gathering momentum.

All evidence suggests that Obama’s prediction that Palestinians’ “efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure” will be proven wrong. Israel is a pariah state and must be treated as such, and reality indicates that more and more are veering round to this belief. Unless Zionist Israelis now in charge of the government mend their ways or are replaced by the people, Israel will become increasingly isolated.

It is time for the international community to wake up and take serious note of what is going on in that part of the world. There is need for them to take corrective action to right the wrongs that have been committed, and continue to be committed, before they are caught napping again and are surprised by another Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, Syrian, Yemen, Bahrain type revolution by the people. This time by the Palestinians, and, in time, by the Israelis themselves.

If the international community wants peace and stability in this volatile region, it must grasp Martin Luther King Jr.’s dictum: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to Justice everywhere.”

Gulamhusein A. Abba is an 83-year-old writer with more than 50 years in journalism. Originally from Bombay (now Mumbai), he has been in the USA since 1982. He was co-producer of a weekly TV show Earth Matters and is presently sponsoring another weekly TV show The Struggle. He is chairman of The Danbury Committee for World Peace and of Justice for Palestinians Committee and is a member of the Danbury Alliance, an advocacy group for the rights of immigrants and just and humane treatment of undocumented immigrants. He can be reached at: gaabba2000@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Gulamhusein.