Obama and Bush, Two Sides of Same Coin

By Hasa Afif El-Hasan

A recent World Public Opinion survey of 21 Muslim countries taken after Obama won the Presidency race revealed a plurality of respondents in the Palestinian occupied lands say the US definitely intended to create an independent and economically viable Palestinian state. Thirty-six percent of the Palestinians sampled, according to the survey, were certain and twenty-three percent thought it probable that the US goal was to help the Palestinians have the state they aspire to have; only thirty-seven percent were skeptical. In the rest of the Middle East countries, only eleven percent of respondents were certain that the US intended to create the Palestinian state; seven percent considered it likely; and fifty percent thought the US had no intention of helping the Palestinians. For some reasons that I do not understand, there is hope among some Palestinians that American patience with Israel will reach the breaking point, provoking a dramatic reversal of the US policies. Perhaps this is an expression of despair and feeling of abandonment by the Arab nations who became irrelevant in dealing with the Palestinians struggle and subservient to the US and Israel interests. In short, the US is the only sheriff in town.

The survey suggests trouble ahead, especially for Abbas government, if Obama does not live up to the high expectation of the Palestinians. Optimistic Palestinians expect the US under Obama to play an active role and pressure Israel to make concessions rather than adopting Bush low-key mediating role. The optimistic Palestinians seem do not grasp the nature of the US-Israel relationship. The use of the US potential leverage to pressure Israel has been rarely attempted even when the US presidents were upset with the Israeli actions. Last time the US used its power to settle a Middle East conflict was under President Eisenhower more than half a century ago when it forced Israel to withdraw from Sinai and Gaza strip after the 1956 war with Egypt.

President Reagan threatened to suspend the 1981 strategic cooperation agreement with Israel if Israel would annex the Syrian Golan Heights, but he could not follow through with his threat. Israel ignored the threat, annexed the Golan and Reagan implemented the provisions of the agreement. George H. W. Bush tried in 1991 to pressure Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir government to stop building settlements by withholding billions of dollars in loan guarantees to Israel. Building settlements did not only continue, but it was accelerated by Shamir and his successor Yitzhak Rabin, and the guarantees were approved after few months when Rabin replaced Shamir.

If the two-state solution is declared dead, the status quo will never be acceptable by the Palestinians who refuse to reconcile themselves to permanent subjugation. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has already lost credibility for failing to deliver peace or remove the Israeli checkpoints and ease the travel restrictions on the Palestinians in the West Bank while Jewish only settlements have been expanding. The PA leadership has fallen prey to the illusion that the US government might exert pressure on Israel to make concessions for the sake of just peace.

The US under President George W. Bush became part of the problem rather than the solution. He not only refused to engage in real peace making, but he embraced the Likud right-wing Israelis policy. He accepted Israel’s views on how to deal with the Palestinians, endorsed and defended every action Israel took, however illegitimate or counterproductive. He pledged in writing on April 14, 2004 to support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans to annex large areas of the West Bank and deny the Palestinian refugees right of return. Bush made Israel less amenable to make decisions required for implementing the UN resolutions. For the Palestinians, Bush tried to charm them by offering them empty gestures of holding meetings, cheap talks about two-state solution and inviting Mahmoud Abbas for photo-op in the White House as a head of state. Bush gave the Palestinians false impression of a continuing peace process that is either dead or dying.

President Bill Clinton was personally involved in negotiations but he supported Israel “unconditionally” in the words of his Vice President Al Gore. Under President Clinton, the US conception of peace was to grant the Palestinians limited rights and no sovereignty. President Clinton final offer to the Palestinians in Camp David on December 23, 2000 was only seventy six percent of the West Bank divided into three cantons separated by Israeli territory plus Gaza which is separated from the West Bank. Israel would have kept control over the offered state borders, airspace, water resources, the Jordan valley and the promised state would be barred from having an army to defend itself.

Mahmoud Abbas, one of the Architects of Oslo agreements had already made the major concession on behalf of the Palestinians by agreeing in Oslo to recognize Israel sovereignty over 78 percent of historical Palestine. The US has the power, the means and the moral authority to influence the policies of Israel and induce it to end the occupation but Washington leaders have been unwilling to act. And there is nothing that suggests President Obama administration makeup and future policy will be different on the Palestinian issue. Barack Obama praised Israel in many occasions and promised to “do nothing to change the US-Israeli relationship”. Obama ignored that the PLO recognized Israel 15 years ago and have been negotiating on behalf of the Palestinians since then. He was quoted saying, “Nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people because of the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel, to renounce violence and to get serious about negotiating peace and security for the region”. Obama is buying in the war on terrorism mantra of George W. Bush. Like Bush, he refers to the Palestinian resistance against occupation as terrorism. His appointments of Hillary Clinton, James Jones, Dennis Ross, Daniel Kurtzer and Bush holdover Robert Gates suggests he has no intention of being evenhanded on Palestine. Obama will leave the management of the Palestinian-Israeli issue to these strong pro-Israel appointees and he will focus on his domestic agenda.

For those who do not know, Dennis Ross is the founder of an Aipac-sponsored pro-Israel think-tank and Daniel Kurtzer served as US ambassador to Egypt and Israel, and he had served as the dean of the Jewish Yeshiva College before joining the State Department. According to Wall Street Journal, Dennis Ross and Daniel Kurtzer wrote the speech on the Middle East that Obama delivered to AIPAC in June 2008 where he promised to recognize a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. After being appointed by Obama as his chief advisor on the Palestinian conflict, Dennis Ross said that Obama had not endorsed the Arab Peace plan when he visited the Middle East in July of this year as reported by Palestinian sources. The six-year old plan, that had been rejected repeatedly by Israel and President George Bush administration, calls for Israel to withdraw from all the 1967 occupied lands in exchange for full normalization by the Arab states. Ross statement, coming after the Arab League leaders called on Obama to consider the plan as the basis for resolving the wide Arab-Israeli conflict, suggests no change in the coming administration’s policy.

Hillary Clinton was the first American to state that Palestinians should have the right for an independent state when she was only the first lady in 1989. But once she became a senator from the State of New York, she became a pro-Israeli hawk defending Israel’s aggression against the Palestinians and no sympathy for the victims. Clinton said in March 2008 that Israel’s collective punishment policies in Gaza and the West Bank constitute legitimate course of action for self-defense. She is only concerned about Israel’s security and overlooks the Palestinians fundamental human rights. Hillary Clinton policy in the Middle East will be an extension of Bush foreign policy.

The Palestinians should prepare for the grim reality of Obama’s foreign policy and stop counting on the US to help them achieve their national aspirations. It is most likely that Obama’s foreign policy team will reactivate the peace talks that were launched by President George W. Bush. The Palestinians should reject the resumption of the Annapolis process and demand from the international community to reaffirm the Palestinians’ rights as stated in the UN Resolutions 242,338 and 194. More open-ended moribund bilateral negotiations with the Israelis above and beyond the fifteen years since the signing of Oslo agreements with no effective intervention is a time for more land grabbing, settlements expansion and giving legitimacy to the occupation. The Palestinians must focus on reconciling their differences and unite around one national policy.

Under the current PA leadership, rejecting the so-called peace talks, reconciling the differences with Hamas and unity under one policy is a fantasy, not because it is the right thing to do, but because it is in conflict with the PA existence. The legitimacy of Abbas regime depends on the continuation of the talks regardless of the outcome; and Abbas seems very comfortable with his title as the president of a Bantustans even if it is completely controlled by Israel. Abbas has forged strong personal ties with the Israeli leadership and sympathized public ally with Israel for rejecting the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, but Abbas never brought down a roadblock or checkpoint that Israel operates in his power base, the West Bank. The US and Israel that lead an international regime of sanctions and embargo against the Palestinian people in Gaza and provides generous support to Abbas government will not approve reconciliation with Hamas. And the present PA leaders can’t say “no” to their paymaster!

-Born in Nablus, Palestine, Hasan Afif El-Hasan, Ph.D, is a political analyst. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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