Obama on Israel and the Palestinians
Unlike the speeches of the previous commander-in-chief, those made by President Obama are orated for the purpose of dissection. They are written by a meticulous language of fairness, accuracy and a little caution that open the door to numerous interpretations. By contrast, where can one go with such nuanced statements as “you’re either with us or against us”?
Obama’s speech on Thursday was intended as a second address to the Arab world, after his famous Cairo speech of 2009. After all, its broadcast was timed specifically for when citizens of the Near East and North Africa would be home from work. It set out state by state how the United States viewed events related to the Jasmine Revolution, though it is his remarks on Israel and the Palestinians that I shall focus on now.
What is clear right off the bat is that Obama views the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as integral to the stabilisation and eventual flourishing of the Arab Spring. “At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past,” he proclaimed, “the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever”.
At the same time, the speech seemed to heave cold water on the idea of talks resuming in the immediate, particularly in the wake of the emergence of a unity government in the Palestinian Territories. On this, Obama said:
“Recognising that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table. In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel: How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognise your right to exist?”
Here, Obama has fallen into line with the standard Israeli position since the Fatah-Hamas split, adding that Palestinian leaders need to come up with a “credible answer” to this question. Moreover, the President fired a warning shot in the direction of Fatah: “For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimise Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.” This would appear to signal that the United States will indeed vote against and perhaps veto any resolution on Palestinian statehood as a threat to Israeli security.
As to justification such a stance toward the Palestinians, one which puts that out of kilter with the rest of the international community, Obama pivoted to make some important statements with regard Israel’s role on the West Bank. He referenced with regard to the Palestinians the “humiliation of occupation” and settlements as a barrier to peace. Most importantly, Obama stated: “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation”. Such a bold notion has never been articulated by a sitting United States President, and Obama deserves credit as such.
The most contentious paragraph of the speech, the one which Media has most aggressively analysed, focused on the issue of borders:
“We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognised borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”
The use of the word ‘contiguous’ is one Obama has used before during the 2008 presidential campaign, in the speech he made to AIPAC (the one that called for a united Jerusalem, for reference). Perhaps the President is merely referring to the proposal for a disengaged corridor on Israeli soil that links Gaza to the West Bank, which was part of the Olmert Plan. If not, then Obama seems to be signalling a desire to enlarge Palestinian territory to the stage where the two entities meet, thus in turn slicing Israel in two, which would do a great deal to threaten Israeli security and indeed its very existence.
His comments on borders are not in fact radical, to put it mildly. The notion of having boundaries centred about those which existed pre-1967 is a consensus opinion amongst European and world leaders, and is in fact something most Israelis believe ought to be the outcome of talks. Again however, no sitting American President has ever said this out loud before, even though the idea of using the Green Line as the basis for peace negotiations was the foundation of the Clinton Parameters, the Bush Road Map and the Olmert Plan.
Overall, the speech reflects an approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict that is a mirror of the attitude he has brought to the presidency: one of care, even-handedness, an awareness of the necessary stances he must adopt, and a desire to always seek resolution. I believe Obama is genuine in his desire to resolve the dispute, to maintain a secure Israel and to allow for the creation of a Palestinian state, based on the belief that “people should govern themselves”. What is not clear, however, is what the administration will do to make this happen, or whether they believe it’s even possible at all.
PEACE in the Mideast, and the pursuit of it, has been renewed so many times that each revival has become less sincere, effective and credible. It’s had more facelifts than Joan Rivers, more comebacks than Cher and been through almost as any periods of rehabilitation as the Sheen family. And to the fountain of youth it returns once more.
This Thursday, President Obama is due to speak on the future of talks between Arabs and Israelis as to coincide with a visit from Benjamin Netanhayu. Bibi, incidentally, is due to address a joint session of Congress on May 24, an opportunity which will in all likelihood be used to make clear again an unmoved Israeli stance.
A resolution at this point may seem a little fainter on the horizon that at any time since the al-Aqsa Intifada, though we are at least a little clearer on what a peace might eventually look like. The Palestine Papers revealed many things we already knew – the Palestinian Authority is spineless and incompetent; Israeli high command by contrast is stubborn and obstinate – but they also made evident that the issues which separated the two sides in 1948, 1967, 1993 and 2000 remain so in 2011.
Borders: The call of Palestinian high command since the Oslo Accords in 1993 has been for the creation of an independent state along the Green Line: the line of ceasefire which existed before the commencement of the Six Day War. The international community seeks this too, and in a manner of speaking so do most Israelis. Their position, however, has been complicated by the construction of settlements and the Security Barrier on the West Bank, in some places penetrating miles deep inside the West Bank.
As such, the 1967 borders are more an outline to be traced around. Current negotiations centre about the Clinton Parameters, which recommended in 2000 that Palestinians receive 94-96pc of the West Bank and 1-3pc of Israeli land. The Olmert Plan, which added some meat to these considerations, gave Palestine 94pc of Cisjordan, and swapped the land annexed by Israel around settlements for territory east of the Gaza Strip and south of the West Bank in the Judean Desert.
Settlements: Avi Shlaim stated in a 2010 lecture at the LSE that the obstacles to peace can be surmised in three words: settlements, settlements, settlements. In 2009, some 304,569 Israelis lived in West Bank settlements, with growth rates topping out at 4.5pc in places like Modi’in Ilit. Estimates suggest too that around 192,000 reside in East Jerusalem.
These settlements are illegal under international law; nonetheless, any concord would provide for the incorporation of most of these towns into the Jewish state. The Clinton Parameters specify that parts of the West Bank annexed by Israel would include 80pc of settlements in blocs. Indeed, Olmert’s plan provided for the incorporation of all major localities in the Seam Zone, the patch of land between the Green Line and the Security Barrier: Gush Etzion, a collection of villages south-west of Bethlehem; Ma’ale Adumin east of Jerusalem, and Ariel in the north near Salfit.
Jerusalem: The conflict in microcosm, this divided city and how best to partition it was the issue that made Yasser Arafat jack it all in at Camp David in 2000. The Palestinian position is that East al-Quds would become the capital of the new state, including the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City. The current Israeli Mayor Nir Barkat however has made clear that he would not accept a cantonised Yerushalayim, claiming that no city split into two has ever lasted the course.
Differing interpretations of the Olmert plan provided for either a unitary city under Israeli governance, or a rump East Jerusalem sliced and diced by the loss of land in the north around French Hill and the south around the settlements of Har Homa and Gilo. Of these, the latter is the more likely outcome. A solution for the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif has never been achieved. Camp David 2000 provided for ‘custodianship’; Olmert left the matter to further negotiations; Saeb Erekat in 2009 merely implied that ‘creative ways’ could be found to deal with it.
Right of Return: What the ‘right of return’ constitutes for those Palestinian refugees who fled during what the Arabs call al-Naqba (the catastrophe) has never been properly defined. As the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi has stated, the right to return to what exactly? Sixty-three years on, the Naqba still smarts and remains a cornerstone of Palestinian unity, but several generations removed from 1948 any notion of going back to the villages of the Mandate is purely notional. Any treatise would demand Israel pay restitution, assist in the finding of homes for those in absentia in Palestine, and admit a limited number of refugees to Israel as recompense.
THERE remain other matters to iron out of course: how will Palestine be governed? and by whom? Will they be permitted to maintain an army? When will the IDF leave? and will the Israelis use force to remove settlers from disengaged areas? Such delicate matters cannot be dealt with through sweeping ‘take it or leave it’ programmes like the Clinton Parameters, but will have to be dissected over a number of months by negotiators and international mediators.
Such details notwithstanding, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the global community are well aware of how a most basic peace might be fashioned out. It is this that makes the previous forty or so years of terror, combat and impasse all the more perplexing and frustrating. Bitter religious and nationalistic sectarianism has barricaded the path to peace, to the detriment of those living in the Land of Israel.
The events of Naqba Day have shown the Palestinian hand, that of deep-seated rage, a yearning for autonomy and, in the case of Hamas, contempt for Israel’s right to exist. Netanyahu in turn has rarely been dovish, and his coalition is certainly prepared to wait indefinitely for a palatable peace. This week will reveal whether Obama can branch the chasm, and gift to the world the peace we all yearn for.