End Occupation Then Start Negotiations

By Sam Bahour

US President Barack Obama is about to take a political leap on the Palestine/Israel issue. Many American presidents took similar leaps and each and every one of them fell flat on their faces. The leap is the launch of a new US peace initiative that promises, yet again, to bring the stubborn Palestinian-Israeli conflict to an end.

Obama would be well advised to learn from all the other infamous US initiatives as he frames his own. There is absolutely nothing news-breaking in the news of a fresh US peace initiative. Palestinians and Israelis have been on the receiving end of so many such plans that they can usually accurately predict the content before they receive them.

This time, however, expectations are not so clear. The way Obama has been dealing with this issue since taking office has been far from traditional. The hope is that the substance of his upcoming initiative will veer away from the traditional, given that the traditional also means failure and more bloodshed and suffering for both sides.

Why do folks here on the ground see Obama in a slightly different light than past US presidents? For starters, shortly after he took office, he delivered a historic speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009 where he stated:

“…it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people–Muslims and Christians–have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 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 Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”

This is a significantly deeper reflection about the conflict from the US then can be remembered in recent history. Obama’s linking of the dispossession of Palestinians when Israel was established with the continuation of the Israeli occupation has great meaning.

Secondly, Obama wasted no time in appointing Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. This was a clear indication that Obama’s administration was taking the issue seriously and was planning to deal with it from the outset and not at the end of his term like so many before him.

Thirdly, Obama challenged Israel on the issue of settlements–the key indicator that reflects the level of Israeli seriousness in not only resolving the conflict, but in reducing tension and creating a confidence-building environment to allow peace negotiations to restart. The response was the equivalent of Israel repeatedly slapping and spitting in the Obama administration’s face.

Lastly, and most recently, US General David Petraeus, the military commander overseeing America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, explained while speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee that, "enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the area of responsibility."

Petraeus’ statement was read as a signal that the Obama administration would not allow the strategic interests of the US in the region to be trumped by Israeli intransigence. Indeed, prior to this public statement by one of the highest-ranking officials in the US military, it was a poorly kept secret that Israel was negatively affecting US strategic interests in the region. In 2006, for instance, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report explicitly noted that for the US to make progress in Iraq and the region it must address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Given all of this, Obama has the clear ability to steer the US to do the right thing at long last. The remaining question is if the US and its institutions will allow him to reframe US policy with an approach to peacemaking that gives him a chance for success.

The foundations of past peace plans have swung from generic macro plans that were proposed before direct negotiations even started between the parties (e.g., the 1982 Reagan Plan) to super micro incremental transition plans (e.g., the Oslo peace process). There was even a big bang approach when President George W. Bush promised to resolve the conflict before leaving office. It goes without saying that all of these failed, completely and violently. Each failure has cost Palestinian and Israeli lives and livelihoods.

What Obama can do differently is to take a concrete approach to resolving the conflict with two clear milestones. The first milestone is to end Israel’s 43-year military occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Then, and only then, can Palestinians be expected to negotiate in good faith toward the second milestone, which is a negotiated final status agreement that would end the conflict and launch a process of reconciliation. Holding Palestinian freedom hostage to an unachievable final status agreement is paramount to a war crime.

In his Cairo speech, Obama also said, "We cannot impose peace". I hope he has reached clarity that imposing peace is not what is needed to avert yet another catastrophe in Palestine. What is needed is for the US to respect international humanitarian law and numerous UN resolutions, and leverage US power to bring Israel in line with the will of the community of nations by forcing it to end its occupation. For the US to uphold international law would be a true expression of "shock and awe" that could well prove to be Obama’s historical legacy: putting the US on the correct–as in just–side of history in this region.

– Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American management consultant living in Ramallah. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. (This article was first published in bitterlemons.org).

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