By George S. Hishmeh
Barack Obama is in a bit of a bind. Unlike any of his predecessors, this American president chose, admirably, to attempt to tackle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict shortly after taking office, realizing that this long-festering issue has seriously damaged the US image in the Middle East.
His first step, his choice of former Senate leader George J. Mitchell as his special envoy to manage the peace negotiations, was widely hailed as Mitchell played a key role in settling the Irish conflict.
But Obama’s bad luck was the surprise selection a few weeks later of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister, who in turn formed an ultra-right but shaky Israeli Cabinet that included colonists from the Occupied Territories. So when Obama attempted to strike a balance in his Middle East policy, he urged Israel to freeze all colony activity in the West Bank, including ‘natural growth’ – an Israeli term for extending the borders of these colonies, illegal under international law.
Several months have been wasted waiting for Israeli compliance. Netanyahu, who has lately been described (by Uri Avnery) as the ‘King of Spin’, keeps coming up with irrational excuses in the hope that he can wiggle out of a tight spot. Meanwhile, very few Israelis, regardless of their political affiliation, have called for the country to comply with international law.
A recent New York Times article referred to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians while reporting on the discovery in Israel of a late-Roman-era mosaic floor in Lod – or Lydda, as Arabs called the town. It’s 75,000 residents are now mostly Jewish, with Arabs making up around a quarter of the population. The city, which is close to Tel Aviv, was conquered by Israeli forces in July 1948.
The paper had this to say: "Most of the Arab residents were expelled – on the personal orders of David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the new state of Israel, according to some historical accounts – and turned into refugees. At least 250 men, women and children were killed in the fighting; more died of exhaustion and dehydration on the march east (to the West Bank) in the summer heat".
The latest Israeli spin is that Obama should talk to them, as he did to the Arab and Muslim world in Cairo, or the Europeans and Russians when he traveled there. A prominent Israeli editor, Aluf Benn of Haaretz, often described as a liberal paper, contributed to the same argument in a lengthy op-ed published in The New York Times on July 28, concluding that the "Israelis find themselves increasingly suspicious of Mr. Obama". All this because Israelis see his stance as "political arm-twisting meant to please the Arab street at Israel’s expense" and not, as they ought to, as a call for compliance with international law, under which occupiers cannot colonize occupied land.
Even The Washington Post protested last week that "one of the more striking results of the Obama administration’s first six months is that only one country has worse relations with the United States than it did in January: Israel." It went on to describe Obama’s position as an "absolutist demand".
As the confrontation between the Obama administration and Israel and its American supporters was heating up, Israeli police last weekend evicted two Palestinian families from their homes in Occupied East Jerusalem, allowing new Jewish families to take their place. The Israeli action was condemned by many countries, as well as the United Nations and the US State Department. About 270,000 Palestinians now live in Occupied East Jerusalem, or 35 per cent of the city’s total population of 760,000.
The Arab states’ offer to recognize Israel, which has been on the table for seven years, is dependant on its withdrawal from all the Palestinian areas that were occupied during the 1967 war. "Incrementation and the step-by-step approach has not, and we believe will not, achieve peace," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal said last week, standing alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department. "Temporary security and confidence-building measures will also not bring peace."
Obama is now reportedly willing to explain in coming weeks his plans for a comprehensive settlement in interviews on Arab and Israeli television – a commendable step. It is hoped that the American president will take into consideration all past UN resolutions as well as the provisions of international law that allow for all Palestinians to return to their homeland or receive compensation for their losses.
All concerned will pay a severe price should a sovereign Palestinian state prove unattainable. Saeed Naffaa, a Palestinian Arab member of the Knesset, reminded a Washington audience recently that the Israelis "should know that the key to the solution cannot be forever in the hands of the US if they continue to repudiate every initiative and proposal for a just solution". "The outcomes of the [Israeli] war on Lebanon in 2006 and the war against Gaza [last January] show that these did not contribute one bit to Israel’s security, and the key [to a solution] began to move out of the hands of the US."
– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.