The Ball is Now in Obama’s Court

By George S. Hishmeh – Washington, D.C.

Although some may blame Benjamin Netanyahu and even Mahmoud Abbas for dropping the ball soon after their peace negotiations began three weeks ago, the more likely person who will be blamed should the talks collapse totally will be no other than Barack Obama on whom many had banked.
The American president has been very reluctant to be forceful, much as this could have favorably tipped the balance in favor of a final settlement. On the other hand Obama’s public remarks, including his speech at the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly earlier this month, were noteworthy for his bluntness over Israeli suspension of colonization and ethnic cleansing that has been evident again this week in occupied East Jerusalem. Yet, as one columnist said on another subject, “when we really need (Obama) to take a strong stand, he’s halfhearted” – a view that is gaining ground among several Mideast observers.
Why Obama avoids a serious confrontation with Netanyahu who turned down the American president’s plea to extend the half-baked moratorium on continued colonial expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories is anyone’s guess. His weakened popularity in the country because of the economic slowdown probably compels him to tread softly especially that a mid-term election is less than five weeks away.
But the official U.S. record, should he be aware of it, is there for him to capitalize on.  Should the negotiations succeed this will yield a much-needed shot in the arm, probably helping in extending his tenure. “The establishment of the (Israeli) civilian settlements in those (Palestinian) territories is inconsistent with international law,” a 1978 State Department memorandum says, and this is still U.S. official policy. The memo was based on Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that an “occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of is own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
And the ultra-rightist Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has again added oil to the fire this week in the midst of U.S. “scrambling” to keep the Palestinian-Israeli talks alive when he once again revealed his ugly face.  He unabashedly told the U.N. General Assembly that "a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has to be based on a program of exchange of territory and populations." In other words, he wants a part of Israel’s Arabs, which number about one-fifth of Israel’s population, to be transferred to the projected Palestinian state, in exchange for Israel keeping large settlement blocs in the West Bank.

If that is not ethnic cleansing what is?
Here again is another shocking revelation from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics that punctures Israeli claims that the self-declared “moratorium” was underway. At the end of 2009, the number of housing units that were actively being built on all the illegal colonies totaled 2,955. Three months later, at the end of March 2010, the number stood at 2,517. “We are therefore talking about a drop of a little more than 400 housing units, some 16 percent of Israeli construction in the West Bank over that period,” reported Dror Etkes in Haaretz, the Israeli daily.

He added: “It seems that it is possible nevertheless to take comfort from one thing.  Benjamin Netanyahu will probably not win the Nobel Peace Prize but he is certainly likely to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, or at least Chemistry, in the name of the Israeli government, which discovered that, contrary to what scientists had thought until now, water is not the only substance that expands instead of contracting when it freezes.”
Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now has described Lieberman’s speech as an “outrage” and was glad that Netanyahu claimed that it was not coordinated with him. If true, maybe he would now consider a shakeup in his government and see if he can find more agreeable allies so that he can maintain the “moratorium.” Of course, it is possible, as many believe, that Lieberman is actually the true and blunt image of the Israeli government, or else, how can one explain his presence at the U.N. General Assembly without having cleared his remarks with his prime minister.
A serious challenge to the Israeli lobby in Washington, called AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), has lately come from another upstart “liberal” Jewish advocacy organization called J Street. It has been revealed that the new group is receiving financial support from billionaire George Soros, described as one of the world’s wealthiest philanthropists, to the tune of $750,000. 
Soros had once criticized AIPAC for trying to ensure a hawkish, pro-Israel policy in the U.S. government. J Street has reportedly clashed with AIPAC and other Jewish-American groups over U.S.-Israeli policy, according to The Washington Times, “coming out in 2009 against Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.”
 “That’s why,” wrote New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, “Obama must now break some bones to get his way: Bibi, read my lips. It makes sense to extend that moratorium by a few months, for Israel and the United States.” Words that the Arab League committee must digest when they hear Abbas next Monday on whether to continue the negotiating process.
– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. Contact him at:

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