US Policy and the Future of Palestine

(Editor’s Note: The following is the text of a speech delivered on October 22, 2010 in Washington by Kathleen Christison at the annual meeting of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations (NCUSAR) on the subject of current U.S. policy toward the Israel-Palestine problem. Christison is an accomplished author and a retired Middle East analyst at the CIA.)

By Kathleen Christison

When Benjamin Netanyahu, then out of office, was caught on video talking back in 2001 to a family of settlers in the West Bank, he boasted about having undermined the Oslo agreement when he was prime minister in the mid-1990s.  And, speaking about the United States, he said “I know what America is.  America is a thing that you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.”

I would have to say that this little truism uttered by Netanyahu has never been more accurate than it is today.  The so-called “peace process” in which President Obama is currently mired is, of course, only the latest of a multitude of U.S. attempts to ignite the search for a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis over the last several decades.  And it has to be said that each attempt is a little more hopeless, and each time, the United States is a little more blind to why it is hopeless.

The hard reality, I think, is that, because of that blindness, it is the United States itself that is blocking any possibility of reaching a just, equitable, and lasting peace.  The United States itself is ultimately the party that is impeding the search for justice and equity in Palestine-Israel.

There has been, and still is to a considerable degree, a disturbing amount of enthusiasm for this current round of talks from what I would describe as those who have an investment of reputation in the two-state solution.  This includes, first and foremost, policymakers from the Obama administration, as well as many former policymakers from the Clinton administration, moderate Zionists such as the relatively new pro-Israel lobby group J Street, and a great many commentators in the mainstream media.

The danger in this push for a two-state solution and in the fact that these people have invested their reputation in its achievement is that they are pursuing it for the wrong reasons — because it is politically expedient, or to save Israel from the demographic problems of a too-high Palestinian population growth, or simply because this is what they’ve staked their reputations on — and they fail or deliberately refuse to recognize the substantial obstacles to the actual realization of a peace agreement that will result in a real, viable Palestinian state.

They don’t examine the realities on the ground that stand in the way of full sovereignty for the Palestinians. They refuse to see that Israel, whether under Netanyahu or under any other conceivable government, will never agree to genuine Palestinian independence or to ending the occupation.  They don’t in fact generally even acknowledge that there is an occupation — that one party to the negotiations occupies and totally controls the other-and therefore that the two parties are in no way equal or equally able to press their demands for a peace agreement.  This is a road to disaster — meaning, most likely, disaster for the Palestinians.

These two-state enthusiasts are locked in to this particular solution no matter what — no matter that Israel continues to devour the territory where the small Palestinian state would be located; no matter that the U.S. and Israel are forcing the Palestinians to negotiate over an occupied territory that by international law should not be negotiable; no matter that the negotiations, and the proposed solution, ignore Gaza, where over one-third of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories lives; no matter that the United States arms one side in the negotiation and enables its territorial advances and all of its oppressive policies.

This is really the crux of the issue: because the United States gives Israel at least $3 billion in military aid every year, and usually more, as part of a 10-year, $30-billion arms package agreed to by the Bush administration, and because the U.S. and Israel are in so many ways geopolitical partners, the United States is in fact an interested party on one side of peace negotiations rather than a neutral mediator or honest broker.  U.S. military aid, and the fact that it is essentially a signed and sealed commitment running through the year 2017, removes virtually any leverage that the United States might have to induce Israel to make concessions for peace.  The U.S. is powerless to cajole or force Israel to move, and Israel lacks any incentive to do so.

I think we’ve seen how this works in reality throughout the dispute over Israeli settlements and the so-called settlement freeze.  The United States demanded; Israel made a show of complying but did not; Obama covered for the Israelis, telling them they were making unprecedented concessions; and then, when we wanted an extension of the freeze, Israel said flatly “no.”  And so instead of exerting pressure on the Israelis, we have offered them more aid and more concessions.  Israel is never held accountable, always rewarded.  But we do exert pressure on the Palestinians to be more accommodating to Israel.

Which raises another critical effect of this U.S.-Israeli partnership: the glaring power imbalance at work in negotiations and in all other aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli situation.  This partnership places an almost totally powerless people, the Palestinians, on one side of the negotiating table opposite their very powerful occupier and the occupier’s arms provider.

The power imbalance dramatically skews not only the relative strength of the parties, but the very terms they are negotiating.  The Palestinians have already recognized Israel’s existence inside the 1967 borders, constituting 78 percent of Palestine.  (And it should be clear that even Hamas is willing to agree to a long-term truce with Israel and live with a two-state situation, if Israel moves back inside its own borders and withdraws from the occupied territories.)  Palestinians are now being asked to negotiate over the remaining 22 percent of Palestine (the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem).  But Israel is determined to retain the large settlement blocs inside that 22 percent, as well as the territory on its side of the Separation Wall, much of the road network connecting settlements, and all or most of the Jordan Valley.  And it has the military power and the U.S. support necessary to impose its demands on the disposition of territory.

If the Palestinians gain a “state” (quote-unquote) at the end of this process, it will be a state in name only, little more than a disconnected set of tiny enclaves with no real sovereignty or independence or viability, and without Gaza, which will be left to drift.  A state in pieces.  I think it’s vital that we recognize that this totally unacceptable outcome, which is probably the best that can be expected any time in the near future, will be the responsibility of those two-state enthusiasts, including in the Obama administration, who are ignoring the grim realities that stand in the way of a solution.

The noted Israeli historian Avi Shlaim recently made an important point about the power imbalance in an article in the London Guardian.  “The prospects for reaching a permanent status agreement are poor,” he said, “because the Israelis are too strong, the Palestinians are too weak, and the American mediators are utterly ineffectual.  The sheer asymmetry of power between the two parties militates against a voluntary agreement, …like putting a lion and a lamb in a cage and asking them to sort out their own differences….In order to bridge the huge gap separating the two sides, America must first redress the balance of power by putting most of its weight on the side of the weaker party.”

I would guess we are nowhere near the day when the United States is prepared to put most of its weight on the side of the weaker party in this conflict.

And so we come to the reasons for the identity of interests that binds the United States to Israel and prevents any meaningful U.S. pressure on Israel.

I happen to be an advocate of the school of thought that holds that the pro-Israel lobby plays a vitally important role in determining the direction of policy in the Middle East, particularly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and that the lobby cements the U.S.-Israeli relationship.  The U.S. has its own imperial interests that also play a critical part in policy formulation, and the military/industrial complex obviously also has a voice in policymaking.  But I believe that the influence the Israel lobby exerts has been critically important, and I think there’s a mountain of evidence to support this view.

I don’t have time to go into a lot of detail, but I think it’s fair to say that almost everything President Obama has done during his almost two years in office demonstrates the profound power of the lobby to move policy in a pro-Israel direction.  This phrase-to move policy in a pro-Israel direction — comes from the two scholars, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who wrote a ground-breaking book on the lobby three years ago and essentially broke the taboo on discussing the lobby.

It’s a critical phrase.  It certainly doesn’t mean the lobby controls all foreign policy, or even all Middle East policy.  It simply means that the lobby has a profound effect on how policy is made in this area.  One of the most important aspects of this impact, I think, is the state of public discourse that has formed around the Palestinian-Israeli situation over the years.  This is a mindset and a set of assumptions that determine how we all automatically think about Israel when we hear the name mentioned, and what we all think when we hear the name “Palestinians” mentioned.  This is a public discourse, a mindset that has been building and being shaped-and being internalized-for almost a century.  And it’s all the Zionist-Israeli narrative

Public discourse has a huge impact on how a policymaker approaches the Arab-Israeli issue and particularly the Palestinian-Israeli issue.  I’m talking about every policymaker in every administration since the Zionist enterprise began promoting itself in the United States around World War I.  It’s important to realize that pro-Zionist activists have been working to mold U.S. opinion since well before there was an Israel-and the effort continues.

This has been done repeatedly over the decades through a multipronged effort simultaneously to shape the views of the media through frequent, well placed media stories; of Congress through direct lobbying that has resulted in pro-Zionist, pro-Israeli resolutions and legislation going back to the 1920s; of the political establishment through more direct lobbying that has produced pro-Zionist or pro-Israeli statements in both the Republican and the Democratic party platforms in every election year since the 1920s; of the public through media placement and demonstrations that have continually brought the Zionist project and Israel to public attention, and in recent years through think tanks and Israeli hasbara or propaganda campaigns; and finally, at the top of the heap, of key policymakers, including presidents, through all of this manufactured discourse and through close personal contact.

Policymaker thinking has been directly affected in this way.  Over the years since Israel’s creation, there has been a pervasive atmosphere in which Israel is simply assumed to be so close to the United States, its interests so closely intertwined with American interests, that it is accepted almost as a part of the U.S.  The lobby reinforces this sentiment, maintaining it in a myriad of ways and channeling it into institutional ways of involving ordinary Americans in supporting Israel.

In this atmosphere, criticism of Israel is silenced, and this silencing has a direct impact on policy formulation.  It also has a longer term, more indirect but equally critical impact, because  this is the atmosphere in which future policymakers grow up — an atmosphere of ignorance and denial in which it is virtually impossible, first of all, to learn anything about the situation and, secondly, to speak out without incurring the organized wrath of Israel’s supporters.

This is where Barack Obama and the United States are today — caught in an induced ignorance and blindness.  I actually believe that Obama fumbled so badly on the settlement freeze issue precisely because he and his advisers are almost totally ignorant of the actual situation in Palestine and Israel.  I don’t believe they understand the situation on the ground in Palestine and what the occupation means for Palestinians, and they do not care.  They’re also basically ignorant, I think, about Israel and its objectives.  They did not really realize how important the settlements are to Israel and its ambitions.  I think they thought they could get away with asking for a freeze because they thought Israel didn’t care that much about the settlements.  Their ignorance is the work of the Israel lobby.

Obama’s subservience to Israel — on the settlement freeze, on the appointment of officials in the U.S. government whom Israel and its supporters don’t like, on the Goldstone report about Israel’s assault on Gaza last year, which the U.S. has repudiated — all this has occurred not because of U.S. imperial ambitions but purely and simply because the Israel lobby has such a powerful influence on policymaking in this critical area.

I don’t need to tell this audience how very dismal is the U.S. image throughout the Arab and Muslim world because of our unquestioning support for everything Israel does.  The tragedy of the present situation is that the United States and all U.S. politicians appear trapped in a web that they do not even recognize — in a mindset that dominates both political parties in the U.S. and a web in which it is impossible to separate U.S. from Israeli ambitions.

This perceived convergence of interests has a profound effect on U.S. policy choices in the Middle East, and I believe we are seeing this all too clearly today as President Obama attempts, always unsuccessfully, to induce Israel to work toward a peace agreement.  Commentators and former policymakers are using some very damning language to describe Obama’s handling of Netanyahu — strong words like “humiliating,”  “pandering,” “pathetic.”  That last is from a former policymaker.  If the United States is unable to do better than this and unable to distinguish its own real needs from those of another state, then it simply cannot say that it always acts in its own best interests.  In the face of the massive human rights violations being committed against Palestinians today, the failure to recognize this reality is extremely dangerous.

Ambassador Freeman told us yesterday that there will never be a peace agreement until there’s a reversal of policy by the United States.  Unfortunately, I’m afraid he’s right, but I don’t see such a reversal coming.

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out