The Obama-Netanyahu-Abbas meetings in May, followed by Obama’s speech in Cairo, have been widely interpreted as a turning point in US Middle East policy, leading to consternation in some quarters, exuberance in others. Fairly typical is Middle East analyst Dan Fromkin of the Washington Post, who sees “signs Obama will promote a new regional peace initiative for the Middle East, much like the one championed by Jordan’s King Abdullah… [and also] the first distinct signs that Obama is willing to play hardball with Israel.” (WP, May 29). A closer look, however, suggests considerable caution.
King Abdullah insists that “There is no change to the Arab Peace Initiative, and there is no need to amend it. Any talk about amending it, is baseless” (AFP, May 16). Abbas, regularly described as the president of the Palestinian Authority (his term expired in January), firmly agrees. The Arab Peace Initiative reiterates the long-standing international consensus that Israel must withdraw to the international border, perhaps with “minor and mutual adjustments,” to adopt official US terminology before it departed sharply from world opinion in 1971, endorsing Israel’s rejection of peace with Egypt in favor of settlement expansion (in the northeast Sinai). Furthermore, the consensus calls for a Palestinian state to be established in Gaza and the West Bank after Israel’s withdrawal. The Arab Initiative adds that the Arab states should then normalize relations with Israel.
The Initiative was later adopted by the Organization of Islamic States, including Iran (Akiva Eldar, Ha’aretz, June 1).
Obama has praised the Initiative and called on the Arab states to proceed to normalize relations with Israel. But he has so far scrupulously evaded the core of the proposal, thus implicitly maintaining the US rejectionist stand that has blocked a diplomatic settlement since the 1970s along with its Israeli client, in virtual isolation. There are no signs that Obama is willing even to consider the Arab Initiative, let alone “promote” it. That was underscored in Obama’s much heralded address to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4, to which I will return.
The US-Israel confrontation — with Abbas on the sidelines — turns on two phrases: “Palestinian state” and “natural growth of settlements.” Let’s consider these in turn.
Obama has indeed pronounced the words “Palestinian state,” echoing Bush. In contrast, the (unrevised) 1999 platform of Israel’s governing party, Netanyahu’s Likud, “flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.” Nevertheless, it was Netanyahu’s 1996 government that was the first to use the phrase. It agreed that Palestinians can call whatever fragments of Palestine are left to them “a state” if they like — or they can call them “fried chicken” (David Bar- Illan, director of Communications and Policy Planning in the office of the Prime Minister; Interview, Palestine-Israel Journal, Summer/Autumn 1996).
The 1996 Netanyahu government’s contemptuous reference to Palestinian aspirations was a shift towards accommodation in US-Israeli policy. As he left office shortly before, Shimon Peres forcefully declared that there will never be a Palestinian state (Amnon Barzilai, Ha’aretz, Oct 24, 1995). Peres was reaffirming the official 1989 position of the US (Bush-Baker) and the Israeli coalition government (Shamir-Peres) that there can be no “additional Palestinian state” between Israel and Jordan — the latter declared to be a Palestinian state by US-Israeli fiat. In the Peres-Shamir-Baker plan, barely reported (if at all) in the US, the fate of the occupied territories was to be settled in terms of the guidelines established by the government of Israel, and Palestinians were permitted to take part in negotiations only if they accepted these guidelines, which rule out Palestinian national rights.
Contrary to much misunderstanding, the Oslo agreements of September 1993 — the “Day of Awe,” as the press described it — changed little in this regard. The Declaration of Principles accepted by all participants established that the end point of the process would be realization of the goals of UN 242, which accords no rights to Palestinians. And by then, the US had withdrawn its earlier interpretation of 242 as requiring Israeli withdrawal from the territories conquered in 1967, leaving the matter open.
The Peres-Shamir-Baker declarations of 1989 were in response to the official Palestinian acceptance of the international consensus on a two-state solution in 1988. That proposal was first formally enunciated in 1976 in a Security Council resolution introduced by the major Arab states with the tacit support of the PLO, vetoed by the US (again in 1980). Since then US-Israeli rejectionism has persisted unchanged, with one brief but significant exception, in President Clinton’s final month in office.
Clinton recognized that the terms he had offered at the failed 2000 Camp David meetings were not acceptable to any Palestinians, and in December, proposed his “parameters,” inexplicit but more forthcoming. He then announced that both sides had accepted the parameters, though both had reservations. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Taba Egypt to iron out the differences, and made considerable progress. A full resolution could have been reached in a few more days, they announced in their final joint press conference. But Israel called off the negotiations prematurely, and they have not been formally resumed.
The single exception suggests that if an American president were willing to tolerate a meaningful diplomatic settlement, it might very well be reached.
The facts are well documented in Hebrew and English sources (for review, see Chomsky, Failed States). But like much of the relevant history, they are regularly reshaped to suit doctrinal needs; for example by Jeffrey Goldberg, who writes that “By December of 2000, Israel had accepted President Bill Clinton’s `parameters,’ offering the Palestinians all of the Gaza Strip, 94 percent to 96 percent of the West Bank and sovereignty over Arab areas of East Jerusalem. Arafat again rejected the deal” (NYT, May 24). That is a convenient tale, false or seriously misleading in all particulars, and another useful contribution to US-Israeli rejectionism.
Returning to the phrase “Palestinian state,” the crucial question on the US side is whether Obama means the international consensus or “fried chicken.” So far that remains unanswered, except by studious omission, and — crucially — by Washington’s steady funding of Israel’s programs of settlement and development in the West Bank. All of these programs violate international law, as Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan conceded in 1967 and as has been reaffirmed by the Security Council and the World Court. Probably Netanyahu would still accept his 1996 position.
The contours of “fried chicken” are being carved into the landscape daily by US-backed Israeli programs. The general goals were outlined by Prime Minister Olmert in May 2006 in his “Convergence program,” later expanded to “Convergence plus.” Under “Convergence,” Israel was to take over the territory within the illegal “separation wall” along with the Jordan Valley, thus imprisoning what is left, which is broken into cantons by several salients extending to the East. Israel also takes over Greater Jerusalem, the site of most of its current construction projects, driving out many Arabs. These Jerusalem projects not only violate international law, as do all the others, but also Security Council resolutions (at the time, still backed by the US).
The plans being executed right now are designed to leave Israel in control of the most valuable land in the West Bank, with Palestinians confined to unviable fragments, all separated from Jerusalem, the traditional center of Palestinian life. The “separation wall” also establishes Israeli control of the West Bank aquifer. Hence Israel will be able to continue to ensure that Palestinians receive one-fourth as much water as Israelis, as the World Bank reported in April, in some cases below minimum recommended levels. In the other part of Palestine, Gaza, regular Israeli bombardment and the cruel siege reduce consumption far below.
Obama continues to support all of these programs, and has even called for substantially increasing military aid to Israel for an unprecedented ten years (Stephen Zunes, Foreign Policy in Focus, March 4). It appears, then, that Palestinians may be offered fried chicken, but nothing more. Israel’s forced separation of Gaza from the West Bank since 1991, intensified with US support after a free election in January 2006 came out “the wrong way,” has also been studiously ignored in Obama’s “new initiative,” thus further undermining prospects for any viable Palestinian state.
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