By George S. Hishmeh
Why didn’t Barack Obama call a spade a spade after Benjamin Netanyahu described his laughable vision of an emaciated Palestinian state alongside Israel? Of course, it is a well-known fact that politicians, and certainly most leaders, prefer to give the impression that the other party has yielded to their demands. No one wants to admit to receiving a slap in the face.
In his memorable speech in Cairo earlier this month, Obama called on the hawkish Israeli leader to put a total freeze on continued Israeli colonization of the West Bank – including what is described euphemistically as ‘natural growth’, allowing colonists to add more buildings to accommodate alleged growth in their families.
The fallacy of this Israeli argument was exposed by none other than the former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer in a column published in Gulf News yesterday. "Since 1993, when Israel signed the Oslo Accords [with the Palestinians], Israel’s West Bank settler [colonist] population has grown from 166,300 to 289,600 [and] the number in [Occupied] East Jerusalem increased from 152,800 to more than 186,000. This [population explosion] goes far beyond the natural increase of families already living in the (colonies)."
Nevertheless, Netanyahu, who has two Cabinet ministers from the Israeli colonist community, disregarded the request, a position that has been advocated by every US administration since the Six-Day War in 1967 because, wrote Kurtzer, the US view is that colonies "jeopardize the possibility of achieving peace".
In his speech, the American president had also urged the right-wing Israeli government to accept the establishment of a "viable" Palestinian state alongside Israel, on only 22 per cent of historic Palestine.
Here, the wily Israeli leader agreed, but with an impossible caveat: the Palestinian state has to be demilitarized, the borders must be secured against arms smuggling and the new state must cede its air space to Israel. Additionally, the Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state, despite the fact that more than one-fifth of the Israeli population are Muslim and Christian Arabs. This point was never a part of previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements.
Netanyahu declared in his speech at Bar Ilan University that Occupied Jerusalem must remain united and serve as Israel’s capital, although the Palestinians want to establish their capital in Occupied East Jerusalem, home to some 200,000 Arabs. He also rejected the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, as mandated by the United Nations,
Despite all this, the Israeli leader had the gall to declare with a straight face that he wants to start a new round of negotiations with the Palestinians without "preconditions".
Haaretz reports that Netanyahu’s speech was a "big success" among Israelis. It said 71 per cent supported his remarks and his approval rating jumped 16 percentage points to 44 per cent. Nevertheless, it said that "Israelis …do not believe there will be any real change in the region as a result of the speech", adding that "a large majority of Israelis surveyed say the peace process will not see any breakthrough in the wake of the address, and an even larger majority says a demilitarized Palestinian state will not be established in the next few years…"
But there are other Israelis who disagree strongly with this view. Akiva Eldar, a respected Haaretz columnist, described Netanyahu’s remarks as "a patriarchal, colonialist address in the best neoconservative tradition". He went on, "The real difference [between his remarks and other more positive Israeli views] lies in the tone – in the degrading and disrespectful nature of Netanyahu’s remarks. That’s not how one brings down a wall of enmity between two nations, that’s not how trust is built".
Despite Arab, and particularly Palestinian frustration with Netanyahu, Obama has apparently decided to turn the other cheek and welcomed what he called "positive movement" in the Israeli leader’s position, saying it could pave the way for the resumption of "serious talks" despite there being "a lot of conditions".
This must have come as a shock to one prominent Palestinian, Mustafa Barghouthi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, who sees Netanyahu as "attempting to mislead the world community by substituting a ghetto for a Palestinian state …His whole speech was nothing but the consolidation of apartheid, not only in the territories but within Israel".
The American president may think he has his foot in the door, but what will he do next? Will he be able to work his magic against Netanyahu, who has won surprising praise from Israeli President Shimon Peres: "The prime minister’s speech was a true and courageous speech that referred to the main issue – the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, the state of the Jewish people".
For a start, Obama could clearly outline his views on settlement. He needs to test the water and he may be surprised by the support he receives – particularly if his views are even-handed and he indicates that a final peace settlement could be achieved in his first two years in office.
– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org. (Originally published in Gulf News – www.gulfnews.com).