US-Israel: Peace needs more than handshakes
Hear those sounds? They are probably the echoes of Israel’s fervent supporters in the US erupting in hosannas when the White House recently confirmed that President Barack Obama is due to visit Israel in March 2013. On the same safari, he will stop over in Jordan and in the Palestinian territory universally known as the West Bank.
The visits are of regional and international significance because they raise the possibility that Obama intends to be directly engaged in the Middle East peace process and that this time around he will be more focused, and supported by more decisive aides, than he was during his administration’s previous attempt to support effective peace negotiations. That effort now lies as inert as road-kill on a highway.
Obama’s visit to Israel will, as well, deprive his domestic critics of a favorite rallying cry, one that the Romney campaign touted during last year’s presidential election campaign: Obama has not visited friend and ally Israel as president but has visited several Muslim nations. Actually, the talking point is both frivolous and meaningless, and had no electoral impact.
Obama visited Israel as a presidential candidate in 2008. Moreover, only four of the last 11 presidents visited Israel while in office: Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush did not.
Despite the wisdom of George Washington who said that “a passionate attachment of one nation for another, produces a variety of evils,” Israel remains a dominant motif in domestic American politics. During a Senate hearing on the nomination of Senator Chuck Hagel to hold the position of Defense Secretary, for instance, there were no less than 166 references to Israel; not a single on the use of unmanned drones as death-dealing instruments of national security.
Announcing Obama’s travel plans, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said: “The start of the president’s second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Syria.”
Lest the Arab world consider this a purely “homage to Israel” visit, White House media spokesman Jay Carney added that Obama would work closely with Palestinian Authority and Jordanian officials on regional issues.
Will his visit to Israel be simply a kiss-and-make-up event with a proliferation of photo-ops? Or can it produce a semblance of progress on the path to peace and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians?
The frosty relationship between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is too well known to need description or analysis. They were not cast in the same mold and are unlikely to be “best friends forever.” They can, however, define and pursue policies that benefit both countries and are germane to peace and security in the region.
Obama has faithfully followed the example of his predecessors in supporting Israel with a range of resources it needs to ensure its security. Even the Iron Dome that provides Israel with high technology defense against rockets launched from Gaza is the product of American know-how and largesse.
The US has also been Israel’s persistent bodyguard in international forums even when the client state did not deserve protection. This became very clear on the many occasions when the US either alone or in the company of minuscule micro-countries stood up for Israel — against reason and the rest of the world.
These shows of solidarity no doubt gave both the Israeli people and their governments great solace. But has it brought them the peace and security they crave? Several Israeli leaders have settled for military superiority over their neighbors, combined with the most effective dirty tricks that intelligence services can provide, as a guarantee of security. Is that enough?
In the documentary film Gatekeepers, past heads of Israel’s domestic intelligence service (Shin Bet) explore the premise that Israel has tactical strength but lacks strategic wisdom. A spokesman for the film said on American television that while Israeli military and intelligence services can do “almost anything” tactically, the country’s leaders do not appear to be decided on where the country should be headed.
No doubt, Israeli leaders will argue that their ultimate goal is to live in peace, security, and cooperation with their neighbors, particularly the Palestinians. Reaching this goal requires a reversion from arrogance, a willingness to negotiate in good faith, respect for international law, a sense of compassion in dealing with political and economic issues, and a true and total commitment to creating a situation in which both polities can live in peace and security based on mutual respect.
All this cannot be achieved in a single Obama-Netanyahu meeting. If, however, Obama can persuade Netanyahu to move toward such a productive approach, that would be a substantive re-set of their personal relationship, and of bilateral relations, with important implications for the stalled — more accurately, failed — peace process.
Obama is committed to a two-state solution — Israelis and Palestinians co-existing side-by-side. He made the point without ambiguity in his major speech of June 2009 delivered in Cairo and directed to the world’s Muslim community. He said: “… the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead.
“They endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”
Netanyahu responded in a policy statement which included his definition of a Palestinian state: Totally disarmed; located next to a militarily-oriented Israel; air space under Israeli control; no reference to ending illegal settlement building by Israelis.
The new Palestinian state would also have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, although the religious preference of any sovereign state is surely a matter of domestic choice not of neighborhood approval.
Netanyahu’s fake commitment to a castrated Palestinian state is no basis for negotiation. It has to be banished from discussion, and Netanyahu should be willing to commit himself to a true Palestinian state – especially now that Palestinian statehood has been recognized by the UN. Without such a genuine commitment, peace talks will be a sham, destined to end in failure.
There are, meanwhile, other “confidence building” measures that both sides must be willing to undertake before peace talks commence and while they continue.
On the Palestinian side this would involve primarily a suspension of the rocket attacks on Israel from Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the Middle East’s best-known diplomatic trouble shooter said in an interview with Nation magazine that when Hamas was installed in office in Gaza a great opportunity to engage with them was lost. Instead of influencing them to moderate their views and actions, the George W. Bush administration not only boycotted them but persuaded other countries in the region to do so as well.
The possibility of incorporating them in the peace process was thus lost — through abject stupidity. For the US to bring them into the process now will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. However, several high-level delegations with an interest in Middle East peace visited Gaza following the Arab renewal and it is possible that one or more of the countries involved could play the role of intermediary.
On the Israeli side, numerous analyses have been undertaken on how the brutalization of Palestinians prevents a change in Hamas-Israeli bitterness. The most recent of these is a report from an independent group commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to review the impact of Israeli settlements on Palestinians.
The International Fact-Finding Mission on Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory found that “a multitude of the human rights of the Palestinians are violated in various forms and ways due to the existence of the settlements.”
“These violations are all interrelated, forming part of an overall pattern of breaches that are characterized principally by the denial of the right to self-determination and systemic discrimination against the Palestinian people which occur on a daily basis,” says a press release on the report which will be presented to the council in March 2013.