Obama must choose between Peace and The "Special Relationship"

"Our posture with Israel has weakened, our hope to strengthen the Palestinians has fallen back, and our credibility in the Arab world has been damaged. We are the victims of events rather than masters of events."

Robert Malley, Clinton administration peace negotiator, The New York Times, Nov. 6, 2009.

"What we are doing here is evil."

Rachel Corrie in a letter from Gaza to her mother shortly before she was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in March 2003.

What Rachel Corrie referred to as “evil” was America’s support for Israel despite its crimes against the Palestinians, crimes she was witnessing at first hand in Gaza. The “special relationship” with Israel that guarantees such support has been a constant of U.S. foreign policy since 1967 and is a relationship in which Israel is the sole beneficiary and often the stronger partner. Watching to make sure this policy remains in place is a powerful pro-Israel lobby that most elected officials dare not oppose. President Barack Obama’s pre-election vow to abide by the “special relationship” virtually assured Israeli leaders they could rely on Washington’s full diplomatic, military, and financial support even if they openly defy its wishes.

President Richard Nixon once predicted that if America abandoned its war in Indochina we would look to the rest of the world like a “pitiful, helpless giant.” He was wrong at the time, but his words come close to describing the image of America projected by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this fall at her meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. The Israeli leader flatly rejected the administration’s demand that he freeze settlement construction. He offered instead only to consider a temporary and partial slowdown. Clinton’s response was to praise Netanyahu for his “reasonable compromise” and “unprecedented” concessions.

Her statement sent shock waves throughout the Arab world. Netanyahu had made clear that settlement construction on the West Bank would continue to allow for “natural growth,” and that he would set no limits on building in East Jerusalem, where Israel is demolishing hundreds of Palestinian homes to make way for Jewish settlers. A week before Clinton’s visit Haaretz reported that Israel was expanding 11 West Bank settlements at top speed in an effort to build as many units as possible before a possible slowdown.

Palestinians saw Clinton’s endorsement of Israel’s continued settlement expansion as another betrayal. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was backed by other prominent Palestinians when he again insisted he would not resume negotiations with Israel until Israel stopped all construction in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem.

A spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, Ghassan Khatib, pointed out that the Palestinians had for years negotiated with the Israelis while settlement expansion was going on, and had gained nothing. “Negotiations are about ending the occupation and settlement expansion is about entrenching the occupation,” Khatib said. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat agreed that negotiations at this point would be futile. “If America cannot get Israel to implement a settlement freeze,” he said, “what chance do Palestinians have of reaching agreement with Israel on permanent status issues?”

If the past is any indication, the answer is, none. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem on land seized illegally from the Palestinians. Almost all of this housing was built while negotiations were going on, with the result that the Palestinians found themselves bargaining over territory that was meanwhile being swallowed up by Israel. Whenever the Israeli government temporarily agreed to a freeze it made no effort to stop religious zealots from seizing Palestinian land and establishing “unauthorized” settlements that soon became permanent.

Clinton’s humiliating surrender to Netanyahu was immediately followed by another bow to the Israelis when the U.S. voted against a U.N. resolution calling for Israel and Hamas to conduct investigations into possible war crimes committed during Israel’s invasion of Gaza last winter. The resolution, which was approved by a vote of 114 to 18 in the General Assembly, was based on a report by the U.N. Human Rights Commission that found both sides guilty of human rights violations but accused Israel of using disproportionate force against civilians.

International agencies, including the U.N., have documented Israel’s damage or destruction in Gaza of 21,000 homes, 16 hospitals, 280 schools, 300,000 trees and 700 factories, along with poultry farms, water and sewage facilities, food warehouses, and thousands of acres of agricultural land. Yet, on Nov. 3, the U.S. House of Representatives followed the administration’s lead and condemned the U.N. report as “irredeemably biased and unworthy of further consideration or legitimacy.”

The U.S. capitulation to Israel was the final blow to Mahmoud Abbas, who announced he would not run for re-election. His evident frustration was understandable. When he replaced Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority in 2004, he qualified as an ideal partner for peace. He renounced violence and proceeded to crack down on Hamas, suppress demonstrations, and keep order on the West Bank with the help of a U.S.-trained and financed security force. Abbas’ top commander, Mohammed Dahlan, had close ties to the CIA.

After five years in office and endless rounds of negotiations, Abbas has nothing to show for his efforts. Checkpoints remain in place, and not an inch of territory has been returned. Meanwhile the giant wall hemming in West Bank towns and cities keeps rising, and Israel continues to demolish Palestinian homes. As the U.S. was urging Abbas to resume negotiations in late November, Israel approved construction of 3,000 housing units in the West Bank, in addition to 900 in Gilo, which was part of the West Bank until Israel illegally annexed it in 1967. If Abbas agrees to resume negotiations while Israel continues settlement construction, and Jerusalem remains off the table, he will lose his last shred of credibility.

The Obama administration’s show of deference to Israel was also a betrayal of America’s Arab allies, especially those who supported the Saudi proposal offering peace and normal relations with Israel in return for Israel’s withdrawal to its 1967 borders. “Does the West give any support to those moderates in the Palestinian front, on the Arab side, that advocate peace, that say, ‘It’s not about resistance any more, but what we want can be achieved through negotiations?'” a Saudi official asked. “The answer is ‘No.’ Do we have an empty hand? The answer is ‘Yes.'”

Ignored Opportunities

Underlying the anger and disappointment of moderate Arabs is the knowledge that peace was within reach several times in the past if only Israel and the U.S. had responded. In November 1988, after years of armed resistance and refusal to recognize Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) voted to accept the U.N. partition plan of 1947, accept a two-state solution and a return of 22 percent of historic Palestine, and recognize the state of Israel. Palestinians must remember that “there are Jews in the land,” Arafat told a Kuwaiti newspaper, and he was quoted in The Washington Post as saying he would accept the presence of a U.N. force in a Palestinian state “for any period.”

Instead of taking advantage of Arafat’s offer, the Reagan administration continued to back the so-called Reagan plan, which called only for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank. The State Department rejected a proposed international peace conference, fearing it would allow the Soviet Union a presence in the Middle East. Such a conference was proposed in 1977 by Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, only to have Israel turn it down. The PLO accepted it.

Until 1991 Israel refused to negotiate with the PLO at all, calling it a terrorist organization. Since then the Israelis have repeatedly violated agreements with the Palestinians. After Abbas hinted last November that he might resign, Israeli President Shimon Peres appealed to the Palestinian leader to stay on, citing the fact that he and Abbas and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had signed the 1993 Oslo peace accord. As Abbas undoubtedly knows, Rabin proceeded to violate that agreement by doubling the number of settlers.

Today Hamas is the pariah, accused by the U.S. as well as Israel of aiming only at the destruction of Israel. The Israelis have have sought to preserve this impression by ignoring conciliatory statements from Hamas and assassinating moderate Hamas officials such as Ismail Abu Shanab, a graduate of Colorado State University who had spoken out vigorously against suicide bombings and in favor of a longterm truce.

Israel has repeatedly violated cease-fires with Hamas in order to provoke renewed violence. In the Nov. 9 issue of the New Yorker, Lawrence Wright recalls one such attack. On June 9, 2006, while a truce was in place, an Israeli artillery shell killed seven members of a Gaza family as they picnicked at the beach. Hamas had scrupulously observed the truce, but retaliated the next day by firing 15 rockets into Israel. Israel then responded with several days of air strikes that killed 22 people, including 5 children.

On Nov. 4, 2008 Israel ended another cease-fire with Hamas by bombing the tunnels under the Gaza- Egypt border that have served as a lifeline for Gazans since Israel imposed its blockade in 2006. Continued rocketing by Hamas in protest against the blockade gave Israel its excuse to launch the massive assault last winter that killed 1,400 civilians and destroyed the remains of Gaza’s infrastructure. Hamas has put a stop to the rocketing, but the siege continues.

Given the challenging conditions it operates under in Gaza, Hamas has shown remarkable skill at governing. Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad assured interviewers recently that Hamas was not trying to establish an Islamic state. “Hamas is not the Taliban,” he said. “It is not al-Qaeda. It is an enlightened, moderate Islamic movement. Our task now is governance, to consolidate stability rather than continue resistance.”

According to Max Rodenbeck of the Economist and Nicolas Pelham of the International Crisis Group, Hamas has revamped and reduced the bloated civil service, improved efficiency, and eliminated cronyism and corruption. It also has vastly improved security. “You can dial 100 and the police come,” a Gazan told the two reporters. “Under the PA police were afraid of thieves, now the thieves are afraid of them.”

A slight sign of thaw between Israel and Hamas came in late November with word that both sides had agreed to a prisoner trade. Hamas would release Sgt. Gilad Shalit, whom they have held for two-and-a-half years, in return for the release of 450 Palestinian prisoners. If true, the deal still had to be debated in the Knesset and approved by the cabinet.

There were also rumors that Marwan Barghouti, who is currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison, might be among those released. Barghouti is by far the most popular Palestinian leader and the most likely to replace Abbas if he were freed. As an eloquent moderate, however, with the ability to unite the Palestinian people and provide them with an effective voice, he may appear to the Netanyahu government as too dangerous to release.

Hamas’ offer of a long-term truce with Israel has received an endorsement of sorts from two noted Middle East experts, Hussein Agha of St. Anthony College, Oxford, and Robert Malley, former special assistant to President Clinton on Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Agha and Malley write in the Dec. 3 issue of the New York Review of Books that antagonism between two sides is at present too great to allow for a final settlement of such issues as Jerusalem and return of the refugees. They propose instead a long-term truce calling for the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Such a truce, they believe, would allow time for the development of trust between the two peoples and enable them to deal with other difficult problems at a later date.

Whatever proposal is put forth, there can be no acceptable solution to the conflict unless Hamas is included in negotiations. Self-interest alone should lead the U.S. and Israel to do so. Hamas has jailed and in some cases killed suspected al-Qaeda members, and has largely put a stop to the rocketing, but it faces a serious challenge from rival Islamic groups such as the Army of Islam. If Israel and the U.S. continue to shun Hamas while at the same time withholding concessions to Abbas, they will create a vacuum that groups far more extreme than Hamas are certain to fill. The cost to Israel will be the lives of its citizens, the cost to America will be the continued danger of terrorism.

The fact that Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, who is about to go on trial for masterminding the 9/11 attacks, claimed that U.S. support for Israel provided a major motivation for al-Qaeda doesn’t lessen the atrociousness of his crimes, but it does indicate the price America pays for its alliance with Israel.

If Obama takes action to achieve justice for the Palestinians and regain the trust of Arabs and Muslims, he will incur the wrath of the Israel lobby and its allies in Congress. If he continues to allow Israel to dictate peace terms while it takes over more and more Palestinian land, he will reinforce the image of America as the protector of an oppressor nation and increase the danger of extremist violence. Obama surely knows which is the right choice. He needs only the courage to make it.