Still Avoiding Clash with Israel

By George S. Hishmeh

Why are Barak Obama and his senior colleagues in the US administration weak kneed in confronting Israeli shenanigans, whether over Israeli colonialist policies in the occupied Palestinian territories or its regional stance, particularly over Iran?

All Obama has to do is look at what his European partners are doing or saying. Here is French President Nicolas Sarkozy calling for the dismissal of Israel foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, known for his ethnic-cleansing policies and extremist views against Palestinian Arabs, who number more than one-fifth of the Israeli population. Sarkozy, according to the Israeli media, has compared Lieberman to the French far-rightist Jean Marie Le Pen.

Lieberman had introduced legislation in the Knesset that would have curbed the rights of Arabs in Israel, and had suggested ceding their towns, mostly in the Galilee region where they form a majority, to the projected Palestinian state in exchange for the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Additionally, the European Commission also criticised Israel for its colonial policies which helped strangle the Palestinian economy and made the Palestinian government more dependent on foreign aid.

“It is the European taxpayers who pay most of the price of this dependence,” the EU underlined, explaining that the expropriation of fertile Palestinian land for Israeli settlements, roads that serve settlers only and West Bank checkpoints help constrain Palestinian economic growth and make the Palestinian government more dependent on aid. The European Union is one of the largest donors to the Palestinian Authority, having contributed $280 million this year.

Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister, has also joined the chorus in questioning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In remarks to the Knesset, Haaretz reported, she accused the prime minister of paying “lip service” to the concept of Palestinian state.

“I, like everyone, heard the speech at Bar-Ilan University [in which Netanyahu said Israel would agree to a demilitarized Palestinian state] and I didn’t know whether to be happy or not,” Livni said.

“The prime minister still does not really believe that this is the right path for Israel but he understands that this is the right thing to say,” she continued.

“The world is demanding it, so I have to say it. This is how Netanyahu explained it to his faction members.”

Consequently, she added, Netanyahu had “placed Israel, to my great sorrow, in the position of the party that is rejecting peace…”.

This is Netanyahu’s Israel that the Obama administration is still reluctant to take on. And despite its expressed interest in pursing an Arab-Israeli settlement, the Obama administration is still wasting time continuously accommodating the bankrupt Israeli position. And it now appears that the seemingly discredited Lieberman has been replaced by Ehud Barak, the defence minister who unsuccessfully negotiated with the Palestinians when he was prime minister a decade ago, in shepherding the lethargic negotiations.

After meeting twice with US Special Envoy George Mitchell earlier this month, Barak admitted that he expected no imminent announcement on the issue of continued expansion of Israeli colonies despite the insistence of the Obama administration that Israel should curtail all construction in the occupied territories before any peace negotiations can start.

Meantime, a new Israeli tactic seems to be emerging in a bid to stall any ultimate evacuation of the settlements which are illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention. It is now demanding that in return for an Israeli freeze on settlement expansion, the Arab states should begin the process of normalization with Israel, a view that has intrigued the positive attention of some Obama aides. But the Arab states remain cool to this approach since they have already offered, under the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, to recognize Israel once it pulls back to the 1967 lines.

The new Israeli diversionary approach aims at pushing ahead a so-called “wider peace agreement” that would involve the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Lebanon, a position that has apparently intrigued Washington. A State Department statement issued after Monday’s session in London between Mitchell and Barak said both “reaffirmed their commitment to the common objective of a regional peace … and the steps necessary to achieve it”. These steps were identified as “measures on security and incitement by the Palestinians; steps by Arab states towards normalization with Israel; and, from Israel, actions on access and movement in the West Bank and on settlement activity”.

But there was regrettably no mention of any Israeli pullback from the occupied territories. Here, Syrian President Bashar Assad stressed last Tuesday to visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier that Israel has first to stop all settlement activity before peace talks can resume.

Although Obama has been inexplicably reticent about reprimanding Israel over its delaying tactics vis-à-vis peace negotiations, he left no doubt that his administration has “absolutely not” given Israel a green light to attack Iran over its nuclear program. This followed Vice President Joe Biden’s half-baked comment earlier that the US would not stand in the way of Israel’s response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This may be the first recognition that Israeli policies may touch off a nuclear holocaust.

-George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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