By Ira Glunts
President Barack Obama’s lofty rhetoric persuades and inspires, but are his actions delivering the kind of change that his words have promised? Certainly his rhetoric has not matched his actions in Afghanistan or Iraq, nor have the President’s campaign promises been fulfilled concerning the rights of imprisoned enemy combatants. All of that said, Mr. Obama has managed to convince many that his administration is willing and able to broker peace between Palestinians and Israelis, despite a very long history of US failure to do so.
The small Jewish-American peace lobby, which consists of organizations like Americans for Peace Now and JStreet.org, is on board with Obama. Some groups have generated a huge number of emails of encouragement for the President and for those whom they view as supportive of the President’s approach to Israeli/Palestinian peacemaking. In fact JStreet’s efforts seem to be almost completely focused on supporting Mr. Obama’s peace plans to the exclusion of all other possible approaches, despite the fact that details of what the President actually intends are still unknown.
The Israeli press and politicians take Mr. Obama’s words very seriously. They are not accustomed to any strong public challenges from a US administration. After 16 years of Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, Israelis are not used to receiving criticism from the US other than obviously toothless reprimands which are not really directed at the Israelis, but rather aimed at soothing the opponents of the Jewish State. Thus the current administration’s vocal and sudden insistence on a two-state solution and a complete freeze on settlement expansion, in light of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposing views, has gotten much attention.
Israelis who oppose the occupation, such as Uri Avnery and Yossi Sarid, are encouraged by Obama. Those who favor the status-quo are more than a little alarmed at what is perceived as a direct challenge to the right-wing Netanyahu. Among the activist wing of the settler movement it has been reported that there have been harsh insults (some racial) and acts of violence in protest against Mr. Obama’s words. A gang of settlers recently burned a Palestinian field in an anti-American protest.
It can be exhilarating when President Barack Obama talks about how confident he is that a lasting peace can be achieved in Israel/Palestine. Then when he adds that the United States will work tirelessly to help both sides obtain this goal, even many long-suffering Palestinians might start assuming that a significant change in the American foreign policy that has enabled the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza for more than 40 years, may be imminent.
However, there are a number of pesky issues that Mr. Obama has not addressed which tend to temper the optimism that his words inspire. First, how will the negotiations be structured? Will they repeat the mistake of the Oslo years by requiring a long process of small steps to “build confidence” before arriving at negotiations of the final status issues? Second, what type of Palestinian state does Mr. Obama envision as the goal of the negotiations? Will it be a fully independent state with contiguous territory in the West Bank connected by free passage to Gaza, or a more limited “small state” with numerous political and economic limitations, which is divided into various cantons separated by Israeli territory? Last, can a meaningful peace agreement be achieved without including Hamas, who is arguably the strongest and most representative political force in the occupied territories?
It is not enough to bring the parties together; the Americans must set the parameters for a final status agreement. Obama must also propose a time frame for finalizing the agreement and its implementation. This agreement cannot be a long gradual incremental process based on a series of obligations and “confidence-building” measures. This is what characterized the Oslo process, which led to continual friction, foot-dragging, non-compliance, and in the end, failure. Any American plan must quickly bring both sides to the negotiating table to discuss all the critical issues which will lead to establishing a viable Palestinian state and the conditions for a lasting peace. Fortunately, the positive results of previous negotiations at Taba and Camp David, in addition to the “Clinton Parameters,” can be used as starting points.
President Obama must not only set the basic parameters of a final agreement, but he will have to stop the Israelis from making unreasonable demands which will assure failure. The Israelis have a habit of making unrealistic requests, which have included demanding an Israeli military presence on the borders of the Palestinian state, claiming disproportionate rights over water resources, reserving the right to use Palestinian airspace for its military, and insisting that the Israeli Defense Forces should be allowed to enter the Palestinian state in the case of what Israel perceives as any security emergency. These and other Israeli demands have been understood by the Palestinians as an attempt to simply maintain the occupation, while creating a state in name only. This is what the journalist Aluf Benn called the “small, demilitarized and well-supervised Palestinian state” which he says Israeli opposition politicians, Olmert, Livni and Barak support.
Israeli demands to limit true Palestinian sovereignty must be resisted by the Obama administration in order to guarantee a fair outcome and a meaningful Palestinian state. Since Israel is by far the stronger party and obviously can live with the status quo, it is apparent that the US must use its considerable leverage to convince its ally to accept a just compromise. In order to do this, the President would have to fight the politically powerful pro-Israel lobby in the US. This is not something that he has ever shown he is willing to do.
Finally, no real agreement can be reached without the participation of Hamas. The United States must abandon its policy of isolating Hamas politically, and encourage Israel to end their siege of Gaza. The US could assist in creating a Palestinian unity government which would reflect a broad range of Palestinian voices. Helena Cobban has written an excellent article titled, “The Palestinian Paradox,” on the stupidity of shunning Hamas, which appeared in the May 25th issue of The Nation. The subtitle of the piece is, “The Surest Path To Statehood and Lasting Peace is Engagement With Hamas.”
President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian official Obama wants to deal with, does not have broad support among Palestinians. He is perceived by many as an American puppet. Abbas’ term of office has expired, but there is no plan to hold elections in the divided Palestinian territories. The Palestinian Authority President is associated with corrupt Palestinian governance and is the leader of the dominant Fatah party, which has been unable to end the Israeli occupation since its inception in the mid 90s. Many feel that Hamas’ electoral victory was basically due to Fatah’s failures.
After meeting with President Obama recently, Abbas demonstrated just how out of touch he is with public sentiment when he professed to have the patience to wait two years for a political change in Israel and Gaza. After all, Abbas declared, “[I]n the West Bank we have a good reality…the people are living a normal life.” Maybe someone should tell him about the hardships caused by Israeli occupation.
Hamas, which is a broad-based fundamentalist Islamic party, won an impressive victory in the West Bank in the 2006 parliamentary elections, winning majorities in both the West Bank and Gaza. It views violence as a legitimate weapon in its fight against the occupation and has carried on a campaign of suicide bombings and rocket attacks aimed at the Israeli civilian population. Hamas will not commit itself to a peace treaty with Israel, but has stated that it would negotiate a long-term truce based on an end to Israeli occupation.
Hamas is the democratically-elected government of the Palestinian Authority, which rules Gaza. The party probably has greater support in the West Bank than does Abbas and Fatah. Its popularity has increased despite an American supported military insurrection, the Israeli imprisonment of many of its legislators, the Israeli siege and December invasion. Hamas has repeatedly said that it is willing to form a unity government with Abbas and has often demonstrated a pragmatism that indicates that it would be willing to compromise. Unfortunately, United States government policy continues to block any resolution of the Fatah/Hamas civil strife, preferring to deal with the more pliant Abbas exclusively.
Despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s conditional acceptance of a future Palestinian state in his major policy speech this Sunday, there is little evidence that he will cooperate in creating a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. But even if the Israeli Prime Minister had declared that he would freeze settlement expansion, this will not indicate a real breakthrough. Successive Israeli prime ministers have accepted the idea of a Palestinian state, but worked assiduously to prevent it. In regard to the settlement freeze, it will only be enforced if the US is willing to penalize Israel if it does not comply. This is not something Obama has indicated that he will do.
If President Obama wants to achieve peace between Palestinians and Israelis he is going to have to break from the past. Invoking Bush’s Road Map and isolating Hamas is definitely not the way. The question is – will Obama be tougher with the Israelis than he has been up to now? Is he willing to expend political capital in a battle with the many pro-Israel groups which will oppose him?
– Ira Glunts first visited the Middle East in 1972, where he taught English and physical education in a small rural community in Israel. He was a volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces in 1992. He lives in Madison, New York where he writes, works as a college librarian and operates a used and rare book business with his wife. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.