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Home arrow Blog arrow May 2009 arrow May 18, 2009

May 18, 2009
May 18, 2009: Obama, Bibi and thee


Can Obama meet Netanyahu's challenge?

 

By MUSTAFA BARGHOUTHI

 

May 18, 2009

 

I cannot recall a more important meeting between an American president and an Israeli prime minister than today's meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Will the Obama administration have the courage to challenge Netanyahu, or will all the talk of change dissolve in the face of a concerted one-two punch from Netanyahu and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee?

 

I am increasingly convinced that if Obama fails to speak out now, it will doom the two-state solution forever. Further fiddling in Washington -- after eight years of it -- will consign Jerusalem, the West Bank and the two-state solution to an Israeli expansionism that will overwhelm the ability of cartographers to concoct a viable Palestinian state.

 

It's now or almost certainly never. If Obama lacks the political will to stand up to Netanyahu now, he will lack the capacity later. And by the time Obama leaves office, it will be too late to salvage anything more than an archipelago of Palestinian Bantustans. We Palestinians seek freedom, not apartheid, and not the sort of Potemkin villages on the West Bank that Netanyahu is trying to package to the West as visionary economic boomtowns for desperate Palestinians. Yes, we want economic improvement, but the best way to achieve that is through control over our own lives, borders and resources.

 

Israel's new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, claimed in an April interview that "America accepts all our decisions." I was in Washington in February and did not find that to be the case. The Obama administration, I was pleased to hear, planned to be in neither the Israelis' nor the Palestinians' pocket. That is all we Palestinians have ever asked.

 

Yet, just as in the '90s, Netanyahu believes that he is the world's driving force and that a Democratic president should be following his lead. In his memoir, former lead American negotiator Dennis Ross quoted an exasperated President Clinton as complaining that Netanyahu comported himself as though he thought Israel, and not the United States, was the superpower. That doesn't appear to have changed. How else to explain the recent assertion by Israeli officials that before Israel will address core Palestinian-Israeli negotiating issues, the United States must deal -- apparently to Israel's satisfaction -- with Iran's nuclear program?

 

The false Iran-Palestine linkage troubles me because its Israeli boosters think that Iran is an immediate concern, and Palestinian freedom can once again be kicked down the road. Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister and a representative of Lieberman's extremist Yisrael Beiteinu party, said in April that "the Iranian clock should be measured in months," but the Palestinian timetable "is open-ended."

 

What Ayalon, Lieberman and Netanyahu fail to grasp is the world's increasing recognition that they are attempting to dictate the timetable for another people's freedom. This is unacceptable in the 21st century.

 

Yet Netanyahu wants either an impossibly long timetable or no Palestinian state at all. In May 2002, when the central committee of the Likud Party voted on a resolution declaring that "no Palestinian state will be established west of the Jordan River," Netanyahu urged party members to support the resolution. To this day, he has failed to embrace the idea of a Palestinian state, even though the two-state solution has been Israel's avowed policy for years. He hopes to destroy the idea, de facto, through delays that allow time for further settlement activity.

 

More recently, Netanyahu has added a new demand: that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This is intended only to confuse and delay peace talks. And it's wrong. Palestinians in the occupied territories have no standing to sign away the rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel in order to get Israel to the negotiating table. To tell the truth, we don't believe that Israel can be a true democracy and an exclusivist Jewish state at the same time. Yet Israeli leaders seem oblivious -- or pretend to be oblivious -- to why Palestinians would decline to acknowledge Israel's status as a Jewish state.

 

Increasingly, Israel is out of step with a world hurtling into the 21st century with Obama. This is no longer the segregated world of President Truman and David Ben-Gurion at Israel's founding. Yet Netanyahu's selection of Lieberman, who once stated that "minorities are the biggest problem in the world," exemplifies Israel's tone-deafness in a changed world.

 

The choice is Israel's: two states, or increasing isolation by a world that will not accept apartheid dressed up as an economic development plan. Tragically, the consequences of further delay and oppression will be endured by Palestinians -- both in the occupied territories and in an increasingly exclusivist Jewish state whose self-definition comes at the expense of Palestinian citizens.

 

Mustafa Barghouthi, a doctor and a member of the Palestinian parliament, was a candidate for president in 2005. He is secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, a political party.

 

 

http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-barghouthi18-2009may18,0,3916206.story


Netanyahu Visits the White House: Change We Can Believe in for U.S.-Israeli Relations?

 

Talking Points by Phyllis Bennis. Published May 14, 2009


Meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Obama has the chance to make good on real change in U.S. policy in the Middle East.

 

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is coming to Washington on May 18, for his first official visit with President Obama. If President Obama is serious about achieving a two-state solution in his first term, and therefore serious about bringing real pressure to bear on Israel, there will be no better time to do so. *

 

Obama, who has strongly supported the idea of a two-state solution since his campaign, has yet to articulate whether or not he is actually prepared to spend some of his massive political capital to exert serious pressure on Israel towards that end – for example by conditioning (even some) of the currently committed $30 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel, on a complete Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank. If he means it, this could be the moment. Netanyahu’s campaign rejection of the two-state solution, his rejection of continuing the current Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and instead limiting negotiations to economic issues, and his extreme racist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman all serve to make a serious U.S. effort towards Israeli accountability not only timely, but less politically costly than ever.

 

But there are serious dangers ahead.

 

We still don’t know for sure whether President Obama is indeed serious.

 

There is little question he supports a two-state solution in the abstract – but that is not enough. The question is what he is willing to do to make it happen – since Israel on its own, secure in its so-far unconditional U.S. military aid and uncritical protection in the UN and elsewhere, has no intention of doing so.

 

What if Obama accepts a meaningless Netanyahu gesture as a significant concession?

 

In recent days, as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency describes it, the White House is indicating that “Netanyahu has shown seriousness about accommodating Obama's push for renewed talks with the Palestinians.” If the U.S. demand is in fact simply that Israel renew talks, Obama will have failed the first test; “talks” have been the hallmark of at least 18 years of failed U.S.-backed Middle East diplomacy. “Talks,” including the Madrid, Oslo, “Road Map,” and other agreements, have left the Palestinians with virtually nothing on the ground except for a virtually powerless “Palestinian Authority,” expanding settlements, checkpoints, theft of land and water, the separation Wall in the West Bank, and the complete physical and human devastation of Gaza. Without an entirely different U.S. role – one based on explicit support for international law as the basis of any negotiations – a new round of talks will go nowhere.

 

Another version of this scenario might be a sudden reversal of Netanyahu’s current position and his re-embrace the idea of a two-state solution. He could perhaps even promise some kind of action on settlements (most likely agreement to dismantle settlement “outposts”). If Obama welcomes the mere words, this will also mean repeating the failures of the past. A variety of Israeli governments have agreed to settlement freezes before, explicitly including so-called “natural growth,” and have simply disregarded their obligation to implement them. They have agreed numerous times to dismantle the “outposts,” which are the smaller symbolic settlements, only to allow, or provide government support for, their immediate rebuilding. (In fact, all the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, not only the “outposts” are illegal under international law, including the huge city-settlements of Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel, and others, and including the vast East Jerusalem settlements disguised as “neighborhoods.”)

 

In any of these scenarios, Netanyahu might drop his ultra-nationalist extremist rhetoric to endorse earlier Israeli “moderate” positions – none of which ever led towards ending the occupation. It is even possible that Netanyahu’s extremist language was designed explicitly to be moderated as a “gift” to the U.S. president during just such a visit. The danger is – what if President Obama falls for the trick, welcomes such inadequate promises with enthusiasm, calls them a great concession, thanks the Israeli leader profusely, and demands Palestinian concessions in return? The result will mean the Obama administration will have done nothing to hold Israel accountable to its promises, settlements will continue being built, and the Palestinians will once again be identified as the obstacle to peace.

 

Then there’s Iran…

 

Netanyahu campaigned on and has continued to escalate his rhetoric threatening military force against Iran, sometimes framing it in the context of “what Israel will have to do if the U.S. does not prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” Despite the agreement of all U.S. intelligence agencies (under the Bush administration – made public in the National Intelligence Estimate of December 2007) that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, is not building a nuclear weapon, and may not even want a nuclear weapon, the claim that Iran somehow represents an “existential threat” to Israel continues. Netanyahu demands that the U.S. agree either to attack Iran if Obama’s potential nuclear diplomacy doesn’t work, or agree to support an Israeli attack on Iran.

 

There are reports in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that President Obama sent an urgent message to Netanyahu just days before his visit, demanding that “Israel not surprise the U.S. with an Israeli military operation against Iran.” If true, that would be a good sign. But it also gives credence to reports that Obama is considering creating a regional anti-Iran alliance – an extraordinarily dangerous proposal that will certainly escalate regional tensions – but also wants to link that idea to an Israeli settlement freeze. That is, Obama may try to persuade Netanyahu to agree to (whether or not he implements) a settlement freeze as a necessary requirement to getting the Arab states on board a U.S.-Israeli anti-Iran alliance.

 

Both an Israeli demand for U.S. backing for a military strike against Iran, and creation of a regional anti-Iran coalition, would result in significant regional dangers, and will not lead to any possible progress in supporting regional stability or ending the Israeli occupation.

 

So, what do we look out for?

 

At the recent AIPAC convention, Obama administration officials’ and supporters’ speeches put greater emphasis on Israeli actions than was ever true during the Bush years. Senator John Kerry called for a settlement freeze; Vice-President Biden called for Israel to “not build settlements, dismantle outposts and allow Palestinians access to freedom of movement.” If President Obama, meeting with Netanyahu, demands a real settlement freeze – meaning an end to construction, expansion and building in all settlements, not only outposts – it could signify a real change in U.S. policy towards Israel. But only if it is backed up by specific enforcement mechanisms – like conditioning all (or even part) of the annual $3 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel until there is tangible, internationally confirmed action on the ground. That would certainly be a change we could believe in.

 

President Obama’s acceptance of mere words from Netanyahu, on the other hand, whether he “accepts” a settlement freeze or “agrees” to a new round of talks about talks with the Palestinians, and not imposing any conditions to make sure it happens, will indicate that so far, at least, U.S. support for Israeli occupation and apartheid remain intact.

 

And any “deal” that offers Israel any promise of U.S. support for or involvement in a military strike against Iran, will undermine whatever small move towards justice might be possible from a settlement freeze or removal of roadblocks.

 

Lots to watch for. Stay tuned.

 

* My reference to a two-state solution in this context does not mean that I believe such an arrangement will ultimately be viable, sustainable, comprehensive or maybe even possible – let alone just. But active support for it is the basis for Obama’s claim of a different U.S. policy towards Israel and the Palestinians – and it would certainly transform the political terrain.

 

http://www.ips-dc.org/articles/1281

 


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