Israelis Say "No" to Obama–What Next?

"The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security."

— Barack Obama, speech in Cairo, June 4, 2009.

"Obama…must win over the large pool of disaffected Arabs and Muslims who have ceased believing in the United States. The climb will be steep."

— Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, New York Review of Books, June 11, 2009.


President Barack Obama has signaled that U.S. Middle East policy will no longer consist of endorsing any and all actions of the Israeli government while at the same time ignoring the concerns of its neighbors and the suffering of the Palestinian people. From now on, he has indicated, America’s policies in that part of the world will be aimed at resolving conflicts peacefully rather than appeasing the Israelis and the pro-Israel lobby.

In a speech in Cairo on June 4 designed to heal the breach between Islam and the West created by the Bush administration, Obama abandoned the former president’s view of a world divided between the forces of good and evil, with Iran and Syria squarely on the side of evil. He quoted several times from the Qur’an, and with a bow to an outstanding grievance on the part of Iran he acknowledged the U.S. role in the 1953 coup that toppled Iran’s elected government and brought back the tyrannical regime of the shah.

Although Obama condemned Palestinian violence without mentioning Israel’s, he referred to “Palestine” as a reality. He spoke of the “daily humiliations, large and small, that come with occupation,” and called the Palestinians’ plight “intolerable.” In his most pointed comment, Obama repeated his commitment to an Israeli-Palestinian peace based on the coexistence of two separate and independent states, and said, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”

Obama inherited a moribund Middle East peace process and a worldwide Muslim population deeply suspicious of the U.S. Like a driver heading down a dead end street, he will have to make a U-turn in U.S. policy if he is to fulfill the promise of his Cairo speech. He has not yet begun to make such a turn. Obama’s goal of a two-state solution requires more than a halt to settlement expansion. It requires that Israel remove all or most of the existing settlements, and this Obama is not urging Israel to do.

He has, however, made it plain there will be none of the personal affinity between the White House and Israeli leaders of which George W. Bush used to boast. When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu suggested a meeting in Washington during the annual convention of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee in early spring Obama was “not free” to see him. At their formal meeting on May 18 the two men openly disagreed. Obama reiterated his call for a two-state solution and a settlement freeze, and sidestepped Netanyahu’s request that the U.S. declare a timetable for Iran to halt its nuclear program. Netanyahu in turn refused to endorse the notion of a Palestinian state and rejected a settlement freeze as “unreasonable.” He said again that Palestinians must recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.”

Ten days after Obama’s speech in Cairo, Netanyahu delivered his response in a speech at Bar-Ilan University. In it he restated his basic position, but this time it was dressed up as an endorsement of a two-state solution. He accepted the principle of a Palestinian state but said it would have to be be completely disarmed and have no control over its air space. There would be no settlement freeze; settlement construction on the West Bank must allow for “the natural growth of Israeli families.” Jerusalem would remain the undivided capital of Israel, and the Palestinian refugees would have no right of return.

Netanyahu repeatedly referred to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria, calling it “the land of our forefathers.” He made no mention of possible borders, but his previously stated requirement that the borders “allow Israel the means to defend itself” undoubtedly means Israel would retain large areas of the West Bank as a buffer zone. As he said at his White House meeting with Obama, the Palestinians had to recognize Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

The White House chose to ignore the qualifications contained in Netanyahu’s speech, and called it an “important step forward,” but Palestinian officials reacted with anger. President Mahmoud Abbas accused Netanyahu of “sabotaging the peace effort,” and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said Netanyahu’s conditions would render impossible “a viable, independent, and sovereign Palestinian state.” Palestinians are aware that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would mean abandoning the refugees and further reducing the status of Israeli Palestinians. Netanyahu’s call to drop the right of return “scuttles the chances for peace,” said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Israel’s apologists undoubtedly will accuse the Palestinians of rejecting yet another generous peace overture by Israel, as they allegedly did in 2000 after the Palestinians rejected former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of a “state” consisting of a truncated section of West Bank territory crisscrossed by Israeli settlements and highways.

Shortly after Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama in May, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton restated Obama’s message that a settlement freeze is crucial to the peace process. The president “wants to see a stop to settlements–”not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions,” she said. “That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly.” Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars took Clinton’s statement as a firm declaration of intent, saying, “They’ve concluded ‘We’re going to force a change in behavior.'”

How they plan to do so is a mystery. Obama has not mentioned a time line for accomplishing his objectives or hinted at the kind of pressure, if any, the U.S. might use to secure Israel’s compliance. Placing conditions on loan guarantees to Israel, as was done by former President George H.W. Bush, is not under consideration, according to administration officials. Nor is limiting aid. Israel is dependent on the U.S. for advanced military equipment and technology, and such assistance will not be affected. Obama’s Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell assured Israeli leaders during his visit in June that “the United States’ commitment to the security of Israel remains unshakable.” More surprisingly, he referred to Israel as “a Jewish state,” a designation the Palestinians have rejected.

Obama has not explained how a two-state solution can be achieved if Israel does no more than stop new construction. Nearly half a million settlers currently live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 120 colonies that are illegal under international law. The Israeli government has approved an additional 46,500 housing units for future construction. Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery quoted a Palestinian official as commenting, “We are negotiating about dividing a pizza and in the meantime Israel is eating it.”

The site of a future Palestinian state today contains, in addition to Israeli settlements, a winding 26-foot-high separation wall, more than 600 checkpoints, dozens of military installations, and an elaborate highway grid that separates Palestinian areas from one another and from Jerusalem. Without major changes a Palestinian “state” would consist only of several native reservations, each one surrounded by and dependent on Israel. Yet there is no sign that Washington will urge Israel to take down the wall or dismantle the settlements.

We are negotiating about dividing a pizza and in the meantime Israel is eating it.”

Netanyahu did promise to remove some of the more than 100 “unauthorized” outposts that are scattered throughout the West Bank–”an action Israeli leaders have repeatedly promised before, only to have such settlements multiply and eventually receive a full array of government services. Settlers have even bulldozed new roads to connect them. When Israeli police tried to dismantle a couple of makeshift shacks in early June widespread rioting broke out. Masked settlers rampaged through Palestinian areas burning fields, throwing stones and firing guns. Several Palestinians were wounded. Police arrested six settlers and a right-wing member of parliament but quickly released them. The shacks were back up the next day.

Obama was unable to persuade Netanyahu even to ease conditions for the Palestinians. The president warned Netanyahu that “If the people of Gaza have no hope, if they can’t even get clean water, if the border closures are so tight that it is impossible for reconstruction and humanitarian efforts to take place, then that is not going to be a recipe for Israel’s long-term security…” Despite Obama’s plea, Netanyahu assured cabinet members when he returned from Washington that there would be no loosening of the blockade. “We have other priorities for Gaza,” he told them.

Obama’s apparent sensitivity to the suffering of Palestinians under occupation made all the more jarring his statement in Germany in late May urging Palestinians “to get serious about creating a security environment that is required for Israel to feel confident.” No one ever asked the people of occupied Poland and Czechoslovakia during World War II to create a “security environment” for their Nazi occupiers. Obama showed similar obtuseness at his meeting with President Abbas on May 28 when he urged Abbas to find a way to “halt the incitement of anti-Israel sentiment” among Palestinians.

Abbas may have wondered how he could be expected to halt anti-Israel incitement when the occupation alone is a constant incitement. Palestinians are reminded of their oppression every time they wait hours at a checkpoint or see Israeli settlers encroach further onto their land; they need no encouragement to feel outrage when they know their fellow Palestinians in Gaza are living in the rubble of their homes and going without fuel or medical supplies or even sufficient food. When former President Jimmy Carter visited Gaza in mid-June he expressed outrage at what he saw (see p. 17). “Never before in history has a large community been savaged by bombs and missiles and then deprived of the means to defend itself,” he said. Accusing the international community of ignoring their plight, he added, “The citizens of Gaza are treated more like animals than human beings.”

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh again assured Carter that Hamas would support a peace agreement calling for Israel’s return to its 1967 borders and full sovereignty for the Palestinian people. Therefore it was disappointing that Obama congratulated Abbas for refusing to form a national unity government with Hamas until it renounces violence and recognizes Israel. Hamas leaders claim it would be premature for Palestinians to give up the right of resistance when they are under occupation, and they point to Israel’s massive use of violence and repeated truce violations. Israel’s insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state may be partly motivated by fear that Hamas will recognize the Israeli state as a reality and be accepted by the West as a negotiating partner. They know Hamas will never agree to recognize a Jewish state.

It is equally certain that there can be no peace agreement as long as half the Palestinian people are denied a voice in the negotiations; therefore if Obama hopes to revive the peace process he must find a way to bring Fatah and Hamas together. The U.S. is instead encouraging a deepening rift by supervising the training of Abbas’ elite security forces whose principal mission is to hunt down Hamas members. Shortly after Abbas returned from Washington his officers staged a series of raids in the West Bank that resulted in the killing of at least six Hamas members and three security police.

Despite such actions, Abbas is seen as anything but a strong leader. His inability to convince Israel to lift restrictions on the West Bank economy has reduced much of the population to deep poverty. Helena Cobban pointed out in the May 25 issue of The Nation, that aid to the Palestinian Authority that could be spent on developing the economy is instead going to “Ramallah’s often idle civil servants” and “bloated security forces.”

Middle East analysts Robert Malley and Hussein Agha maintain that for Obama to reduce Arab skepticism of American peacemaking efforts he must make a sharp departure from the past. “It won’t be done by seeking to strengthen those leaders viewed by their own people as at best weak and incompetent,” they wrote in the June 11 issue of the New York Review of Books. “It won’t be done by perpetuating the bogus and unhelpful distinction between extremists and moderates, by isolating the former, reaching out to the latter, and ending up disconnected from the region’s most relevant actors.”

Shunning Hezbollah

Their message applies equally well to the Obama administration’s policy of shunning Hezbollah. A few weeks before Lebanon’s June 7 elections Vice President Joe Biden visited Beirut and threatened that a Hezbollah victory would seriously jeopardize U.S. aid. “The shape of our assistance [will be] based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates,” he warned.

Lebanese journalist Omayma Abdel-Latif responded in an op-ed piece in The New York Times that the Lebanese might ask why the U.S. opposes interference in Lebanon by Iran and Syria but justifies its own meddling. Abdel-Latif might also have pointed out that the Lebanese government has arrested 55 people this year on charges of spying for Israel. Three of the suspects were spirited out of the country by Israel, but 34 are still in jail. The U.S. has not objected to Israel’s interference.

Obama’s continued branding of Hezbollah as terrorist serves no purpose but to placate Israel and its U.S. supporters. Hezbollah originated as a guerrilla force fighting to drive the Israeli army out of Lebanon after Israel’s 1982 invasion. It helped rebuild southern Lebanon after Israel withdrew in 1998, and again in 2006 after Israeli bombing destroyed much of Lebanon’s infrastructure. As a member of the Lebanese government Hezbollah has taken part in talks with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

The party ran on June 7 as a partner of the Free Patriotic Movement headed by retired Gen. Michel Aoun, a Christian. Christian voters failed to support their coalition, however, and it lost to the U.S.-backed March 14 coalition headed by Saad Hariri. Hariri’s party won 71 of the 128 seats in parliament but there is certain to be a unity government, with Hezbollah in a prominent role. The party’s considerable support in Lebanon is a reality Obama has to face.

Challenging Realities

He faces more challenging realities elsewhere in the region. The war in Iraq that cost the lives of nearly 5,000 American troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis may have achieved only the replacement of one despotic regime with another. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has refused to integrate Sunnis into the government, and his security forces have arrested scores of Sunnis, Sadrists and other political opponents of al-Maliki’s Dawa party. The prime minister has created an agency called the Counter-Terrorism Bureau (CTB) that is attached to his office and has a special judge prepared to issue warrants on the orders of al-Maliki and his associates.

The CTB also has effective command over the Iraq Special Operations Forces (ISOF), an outfit created and trained by the U.S. and equipped with state-of-the art American weapons. Shane Bauer in the June 22 issue of The Nation gives a detailed and chilling account of ISOF actions, including reports of killings and other human rights abuses. According to Bauer, its members are feared and distrusted by members of the regular Iraqi army. “They kill and no one will hold them accountable because they belong to the Americans,” one officer told him. The ISOF is certain to remain long after the Americans leave and could serve as the potential enforcer of an authoritarian regime

In Afghanistan and Pakistan Obama is committed to a war the U.S. has no prospect of winning. During World War II, and in Korea, America was allied with well-established governments and fought clearly defined enemies. In Afghanistan and Pakistan nationhood is largely a fiction. Neither country has a tradition of strong central government, and most of the population owe their allegiance to their tribes or ethnic groups.

In Pakistan the army is predominantly Punjabi, and people in the tribal areas where fighting is taking place are largely Pashtun, who are fiercely resistant to domination by the Punjabi-led central government. The army is also tied down in Baluchistan and Sind, where India is suspected of supporting powerful separatist movements. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid reported in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books that the Sind city of Karachi, with 17 million people, “is an ethnic and sectarian tinderbox waiting to explode.”

According to Rashid, the government has received billions in U.S. aid over the past several years yet seems either unable or unwilling to serve the needs of the Pakistani people. President Asif Ali Zardari complains he does not have the money to develop the economy, yet Pakistan is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal. “The overall economy is crashing, with drastic power cuts across the country as industry shuts down,” Rashid writes. Widespread unemployment, especially among the young, creates more recruits to the Taliban.

The amorphous nature of the enemy is a further obstacle to the U.S. effort. Experts estimate that some 14 different groups in Afghanistan and as many as 50 in Pakistan are allied with the Taliban in one way or another. Many support the Taliban but bitterly oppose al-Qaeda. Often their members join out of anger at U.S. and NATO forces, whose military operations cause numerous civilian casualties. Unfortunately the one advantage the Pakistan army has is that an increasing number of suicide bombings attributed to the Taliban also anger the public.

By putting his imprimatur on this war Obama has placed himself in a trap. The U.S. is fighting on behalf of two rickety governments whose armies are often more a hindrance than a help. The longer the war goes on the more people in those countries want us to leave. So there is no way America can win. The one way out, as there is for all wars after the losses become intolerable and popular support declines, is a negotiated peace.

Afghan leaders have been holding peace talks with the Taliban but so far there has been no progress. The Taliban insist on an American promise to withdraw, an end to the drone bombings, and a release of its prisoners. American officials say they will not participate in talks until the Taliban lay down their arms and abandon violence. Meanwhile 20,000 additional U.S. troops are on their way to Afghanistan, and the prison at Baghram air base, where some of the worst torture has taken place, is being doubled in size.

Obama’s eloquence in Cairo convinced many Muslims that America is no longer at war with Islam. Now he must prove to people in South Asia, the Middle East, and at home, that America is committed to peace.