Telling It as It Is

By Mustafa Barghouti

As many speculate about Obama’s future policies in the Middle East, the general Arab reaction is wait-and-see. The new president will likely face a barrage of problems, the economy and Iraq for starters, enough to keep him busy for a whole term. But there is no indication that the "change" Obama likes so much to talk about applies to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The appointments he made so far are not that encouraging either.

The Israelis, and Tzipi Livni has said as much, want the Americans to stay out of it. They want to keep the Palestinians divided, hold out the carrot of possible negotiations, while expanding settlements and changing the status quo all the time. The Palestinians, meanwhile, seem hapless. Pursuing negotiations that have no chance of success, the Palestinians are holding on to Annapolis like a drowning man clutches at a straw. What are they doing about the Israeli settlements that grew exponentially during the Annapolis talks? Nothing. What are they doing about the Israeli roadblocks that increased from 521 to 630 during the same period? Nothing. What are they doing about the system of apartheid that subsequent Israeli governments appear to reinforce? Nothing.

In Washington, meanwhile, there are three views concerning the Middle East. The first is that Israel should have a free hand and the US should stay out. At most, the US should be sending emissaries of the evasive type, people who can keep the ball rolling, discuss minor stuff, while time is being wasted. In short, there are people who divert our attention while Israel builds more settlements, changes the demographics of Jerusalem, and generally creates new facts on the ground. Those who advocate such a view want to keep the Palestinians divided while encouraging the Palestinian Authority to act as a watchdog for Israel.

The second view is that the US should forget about Palestine and focus instead on things such as the economy, or on Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. After all, the Palestinian issue is a low-yield one, as previous US presidents discovered to their chagrin, and the new president has enough on his plate. Both this view and the one mentioned above give Israel a free hand. And both have the support of pro-Israeli groups, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The third view follows more or less in the footsteps of the Baker-Hamilton report, advising the administration to pull out of Iraq and end a disgraceful war. Supporters of this view include people such as Lee Hamilton and former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft. US president Jimmy Carter, who wrote a book assailing Israel’s system of apartheid, is also an advocate of this view. All of the above officials back the Arab initiative and urge its implementation as a formula leading to a comprehensive solution to the Middle East conflict.

Supporters of the latter view dare to say something that Israel doesn’t want to hear. They say that every single problem in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan included, can be traced back to the Palestinian problem. And they want to draw the line, therefore, between American interests on the one hand and Israeli policies on the other. They also believe that Israel has crossed the line when it created an apartheid system in Palestine. Most of them believe that Obama is the last president in a position to endorse a two-state solution. Otherwise, the only solution will be a bi-national state, which many argue is not in Israel’s best interests.

Unfortunately, Arab officials are maintaining a passive outlook on the whole matter, saying as little as possible and generally leaving the initiative to others. We have no one to advance our views in Washington, simply because we have failed to maintain an effective Arab or Palestinian pressure group in the US. American presidents, Obama included, don’t take any risks unless they have too. And as long as we, the Palestinians and Arabs remain silent, US officials are unlikely to get interested in our case. We can influence Obama’s choices, but only if we make a collective effort to get our point across. One point that we need to make urgently is that Palestine is the core problem, the one from which all other troubles in the region emanate.

Ours is not a lost case. For a while after the Beirut summit, the Arabs made a brave attempt to ditch the futile, piecemeal approach to negotiations and replace it with something more serious. Their attempt was credible enough to entice Sharon into a series of diversion tactics, including an offensive in the occupied territories, followed by the assassination of president Yasser Arafat. The Annapolis process was but another delaying tactic. The only thing it did so far was keep the Palestinians busy, and divided too, while Israel grabs more land and changes demographic realities.

Israel is going to have an election soon, with the winner most likely a Likud or a former Likud member: Netanyahu or Livni. This establishes that Israel is not going to change its ways anytime soon. It will continue to build settlements and walls, alter the demographics of Jerusalem, and generally keep the Palestinians confused and divided. Therefore the Palestinians need to act. I suggest that they do everything they can to:

– Regain Palestinian national unity, end internal divisions, and build a unified national command that can speak to the US administration and the world with one voice. The Palestinians should stop listening to those who want to break them apart.

– Rally support to the Arab initiative as a sole alternative to piecemeal and interim solutions. We mustn’t fall for the insidious attempts by Shimon Perez to interpret the Arab initiative in a selective manner. What Israel wants is to extract full normalisation with the Arabs while continuing to occupy their lands.

– Call for an international conference based on UN resolutions to implement the Arab initiative in full. The aim here is to end the occupation of all occupied territories, especially Jerusalem. A comprehensive international mechanism to establish peace needs to be created. And the US should not be allowed to monopolise the mediation, not while it continues to be totally biased to Israel. Arabs and Palestinians may cooperate with other powers that are rising on the international scene.

– Launch a comprehensive media campaign to denounce the apartheid system created by Israel and end Israel’s hold on world opinion.

All of the above is doable. Nothing in what I said is too hard for Arab regimes. All I am saying is that we need to illustrate the gross injustice done to the Palestinians. We need to provide an alternative view to an audience long monopolised by the Israeli lobby. We need to uphold the values of change, freedom, equality Obama has been talking for so long about. Palestine is the world’s biggest victim of apartheid. We have a just cause and we need to defend it.

– Mustafa Barghouti is secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative. (Originally published in Al Ahram Weekly – December 3-9, 2008. Issue No. 925.)

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