By S P Seth
April 17, 2013
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is seeking to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. This will be Obama administration’s new initiative in its second term to move the Palestinian issue forward. Its initiative in the first term was a disappointment, and indeed, created a rift between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government in Israel. President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Israel was, therefore, essentially designed to fill in the cracks in US-Israel relations that emerged during his first term. Indeed, the cracks started to emerge soon after Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 when he sought to build bridges with the Islamic world where US’ unquestioning support for Israel has been and is a major irritant. Israel was not impressed, apparently because Obama initiative was taken without prior clearance from Tel Aviv.
After that it was all downhill, particularly when the US sought to pressure the Netanyahu government to halt further settlement activity in the occupied territory to advance peace negotiations with the Palestinians for a two-state solution. Netanyahu and his government reacted angrily and petulantly, seeking to mobilise the US Jewish lobby and powerful pro-Jewish political cabal, cutting across party lines, to damage Obama’s presidential position. So much so that, throwing away all political discretion and diplomatic decorum, Prime Minister Netanyahu virtually adopted the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, in the last year’s election as Israel’s preferred choice as US’ president.
Despite that Obama was re-elected, primarily because he got the overwhelming support of the country’s minorities. One thing Obama learnt during his first term was that, even if he personally wanted to push forward the two-state solution to resolve the Palestinian question, he was at odds with the majority of the US political establishment of all political persuasions except on Israel’s terms. Which meant that Israel would not be required to halt settlements, thus continuing to grab more Palestinian territory. Israeli veto on the US’s internal political processes on the Palestinian question was also obstructing the Obama administration’s legislative agenda over a whole range of other issues.
Faced with this situation, the Obama administration in his second term has decided to put the Palestinian question in the hard to tackle basket, thus removing an important obstacle to relations with Israel and its US lobby. It will still try, as is evident from Kerry’s diplomatic initiative, but by accommodating Israeli sensitivities. And that was on display during the highly choreographed Obama visit to Israel. It was full of bonhomie between Obama and Netanyahu, with the former going all out to recommit the US to Israel’s security, continuation of its three billion dollars annual military aid to Israel and much more.
On the other hand, Obama’s West Bank trip of a few hours was more like an excursion without any serious purpose. It is not that he completely ignored the Palestinian question, but he seemed to put Palestine (an Israeli-occupied territory), and Israel, the occupying state, on an equal moral basis. For instance, he reportedly urged Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks without any pre-conditions. In doing so he seemed to be endorsing Israeli demand for talks without any restriction on settlement activities, even though an end to further Israeli settlements in the occupied territory is the essence of any forward movement on the Palestinian question. Such occupation is internationally recognised as illegal. Therefore, without a commitment on Israel’s part, at the very least, to halt further settlement activity, any negotiations on a two-state solution is a charade and a reward for continued Israeli aggression. In other words, Kerry’s initiative is treading a very slippery slope.
Even as Israel talks of negotiations without any pre-conditions, it nonetheless puts its own pre-conditions, such as the right to continue building illegal settlements, recognition of its claim as a Jewish state and de-militarisation of any future Palestinian state. In other words, a downsized Palestinian state will be a Balkanised entity with the South African apartheid-era Bantustans, crisscrossed by Israeli checkpoints and overseen by the Israeli army.
Having abandoned any worthwhile US role in pressuring Israel to work towards a two-state solution, President Obama now hopes that Israeli people, at some point, will come to realise that it is in their own interest to have a peaceful Palestinian state co-existing with a secure Israel. This is how he put it to a gathering of Israeli students during his visit. Highlighting the unjust and untenable situation as it exists today, he said, “It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home.”
Assuring Israelis of unwavering US commitment to their country’s security, Obama made the point though that “The only [sustainable] way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.” And he added, “The only way to truly protect the Israeli people is through the absence of war, because no wall is high enough, and no Iron Dome is strong enough to stop every enemy from inflicting harm.” Which is true enough? But if Obama believes that his fine sentiments will galvanise Israeli people into a sudden realisation of making peace with the Palestinians, he is either living in an unreal world or simply seeking to sidetrack the Palestinian question. If Israel were thinking long term, it must realise that, with or without the US, it would need to make peace with its Arab neighbours. And without peace with the Palestinians that would remain elusive. Will Kerry be able to bring home this realisation? It would seem very unlikely.
As Noam Chomsky, described by some as ‘America’s most-prominent self-hating Jew’, when asked recently by a questioner if Israel would still exist in 50 years, said: “Israel is following policies which maximise its security threats... policies which choose expansion over security policies which lead to their [Israeli] moral degradation, their isolation, their delegitimisation....and very likely ultimate destruction. That’s not impossible.”
It is a pity that Jews, once one of the world’s most persecuted people, are blinded by their false sense of power, military or otherwise. As a result President Obama felt helpless and has entrusted the Palestinian issue to the good sense of the Israeli people that has not been in sight over many decades now. The recent tensions in West Bank over the death in Israeli prison of a prominent Palestinian, and the killing of two Palestinian teenagers, would seem to suggest more of the same. While one wishes Kerry all the success in his new mission, the odds are stacked against him because of Israel’s obduracy.
S P Seth is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia