by Adam Keller
President Obama has made his long awaited speech and uttered the magic number which some hoped and other dreaded that he would mention – Nineteen Hundred Sixty Seven. And Prime Minister Netanyahu retorted with an angry outburst and total denunciation and rejection of the 1967 borders. Israel's newspapers all came out with banner headlines proclaiming "Confrontation!" and "Collision Course!". In the evening, Obama and Netahayhu met at the White House and made a rather pale effort to paper over the cracks and present the TV cameras with a friendly, smiling, hand-shaking façade – what today's Wall Street Journal called "The most undiplomatic moments of international diplomacy ever offered for cameras".
From the shallow perspective of 48 hours after the speech, how are we to gauge it? A historical breakthrough? A tawdry, soon forgotten media gimmick? Or something in between?
It is already many years since the idea of a Palestinian state has become almost universally accepted in Israel, excluding only a thin layer of extreme-right diehards. Several Israeli Prime Ministers in succession talked of the creation of a Palestinian state as a positive and desirable event, notably including Binyamin Netanyahu who announced his adherence to the idea in the celebrated Bar Ilan Speech, soon after getting to power in 2009. Yet, with virtually everybody agreeing, the State of Palestine did not come into being and with every passing year it became more doubtful that it ever would.
The State of Palestine, as mainstream Israeli politicians conceive of it, lacks two ingredients indispensable for a theoretical state to become a real entity in the real world – namely, space and time. Israeli politicians – even and especially the more right-wing of them – would have been overjoyed to recognize a supposedly independent state embracing the present areas of the Palestinian Authority, a collection of isolated enclaves surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements and military camps. Others, slightly more generous, were willing to grant the Palestinians a bit more territory, making for some territorial continuity – but still with Israel retaining control of the Jordan Valley, which constitutes at least thirty percent of the West Bank. And controlling the Jordan Valley, Israel could and would control all of Palestine's contact with the outside world, all entry and exit of persons and goods – in effect, a larger replication of the situation of siege which Gaza had been enduring for the past five years, (without even a sea shore which international relief flotillas could try to reach at great risk).
When Palestinians expressed a marked lack of enthusiasm for having a state so delimited and constrained, successive Israeli governments had a ready answer: "Let's talk about it". Negotiations, an ongoing Peace Process with glittering photo opportunities and handshakes, were good for Israel's international image, deflecting pressures and distracting attention from unsavory brutality and the ongoing creation of settlement accomplished facts on the ground. Reaching an agreement, not to mention its actual implementation, were an entirely different issue. Much better to avoid or fritter away any definite timetables and target dates (as was the fate of the late, lamented Road Map for Peace, which set 2005 as the time for a final status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians).
Anyway, the Israeli side increasingly reiterated that talking was in essence theoretical, as in fact there was "no partner" and the time was "not ripe". For example, the negotiations carried out for more than two year by PM Ehud Olmert and his Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni were explicitly aimed at producing a "shelf agreement", which would be duly signed and then placed on a shelf to gather dust until conditions for its implementation "ripened". The reasons for there being no partner and conditions being unripe constantly shifted, PM's s and their aides and PR experts showing considerable ingenuity and creativity: Because Yasser Arafat was an arch terrorist and because his successor Abu Mazen was a powerless "chick without feathers"; because the Palestinians were divided with rival government in Ramallah and Gaza or because they had reached a reconciliation to which one party included terrorists; because the surrounding Arab World was ruled by dictators which did not represent their peoples, or because the Arab World had become unstable and engulfed by popular revolts and demands for democracy.
The demand for Israel to freeze the process of settlement creation on the West Bank, clearly made in Obama's first major Middle East speech in Cairo and placed at center stage in his administration earlier efforts at peace making, actually served Netanyahu as a new ploy to endlessly delay and put off the substantive issues. Instead of talking about where Palestine would have its borders and when Palestine would come into being, there was an endless wrangle over whether settlement construction would be or would not be frozen, for exactly how many months, which exceptions would be tacitly or explicitly tolerated , and whether or not the freeze would apply to East Jerusalem.
It might have been different had Obama proven able and willing to put strong and unequivocal pressure on Netanyahu, to freeze settlement construction without further ado. But such was not the case – there were two years of struggles, ups and downs and confrontations and confrontations and sensational headlines in the Israeli media. Obama did apply some pressure, but Netanyahu proved able to apply counter-pressures in the American politics, playing on the Democratic Party shaky position in the 2010 mid-term elections. In the end, Obama gave up the point and ceased further efforts to enforce a settlement freeze. In the international arena, Netanyahu was saddled with responsibility for the collapse of the talks, but evidently considered this an acceptable price. Obama's less than glorious record in implementing what he proclaimed at Cairo two years ago should certainly be taken into account in assessing what he announced at Washington two days ago.
It was while Obama unsuccessfully grappled with settlement construction that Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – probably the least charismatic leader in Palestinian history – conceived of a way to break out of the futile game of endless negotiations and negotiations about negotiations. In effect, Palestinians would take a leaf from Israel's own book and start creating accomplished facts of their own and fill in the blanks left by the recalcitrant Israeli politicians. Whether or not Israel liked it, Palestine would arise at a specified time, September 2011, and within specified borders, the 1967 borders.
Fayyad spoke openly and in detail about his plan – gathering international support for a crucial recognition vote at the UN, while building up state institutions on the ground and (to a limited degree) supporting unarmed protests and demonstrations by Palestinian villagers confronting Israeli soldiers and settlers.
It was a considerable time before Palestinians in general started to take seriously Fayyad's plan, and even longer before Israelis and the rest of the world followed suit. Eventually, however, the Israeli political and military establishment started to take seriously indeed what Defence Minister Barak termed "The Diplomatic Tsunami" awaiting Israel in September.
Nethanyahu has obvious reasons to dislike the idea of the Palestinians going to the UN to ask for recognition of a Palestine in the 1967 borders, rather than going on waiting for Godot. He and his emissaries had been frantically running around European capitals – Berlin, Prague, London, Paris, Rome – trying with mixed success to get governments to oppose the Palestinian drive in the UN. It was to culminate with getting himself invited to make a speech at the US Congress – more of a home ground then virtually any other place in the world – and effectively pose a threat to Obama in the arena of internal US politics, gearing up towards the 2012 Presidential race.
Obama obviously disliked Netanyahu's plalnned expedition to Capitol Hill. But he also had his own reasons for disliking the Palestinian approach to the United Nations. Because the US, under whatever President, is used to controlling world events and using the UN as its subservient tool, and does not take kindly to somebody else trying to usurp that tool. And because a Palestinian statehood resolution in the UN might face Obama with the problematic choice of casting a veto – and finding the US in international isolation – or not vetoing and then facing the fury of Netanyahu's friends on Congress.
Obama already faced that dilemma in February, when the Palestinians presented the Security Council with a resolution condemning settlement construction, and the US emerged battered from having cast its veto, solitary against the unanimous Yes vote of all other fourteen members of the Security Council, including the United States' European allies. That was, in effect, the dress rehearsal for the expected September vote. With the real thing, the stakes would be far higher, the consequences from any US decision might be drastic and far-reaching indeed. All the more so with the Middle East in a state of revolutionary flux whose outcome none can predict with any certainty and with young Palestinians increasingly and effectively taking up the methods of grassroots organizing via Facebook, as they did on Nakba Day a week ago.
Clearly, Obama's interest lay in trying to preempt the Palestinian diplomatic offensive – and also Netanyahu's Washington venture. Hence, a high-profile policy speech on the Middle East, setting up a supposedly attractive alternative for the Palestinians, delivered just ahead of Netahyahu's arrival in the American capital and relying on Obama's strong position in American public opinion following the killing of Bin Laden. All of which meshed quite well with the need to present a clear formulation of the administration's policy towards the revolutionary upsurge in the Arab World, a policy often charged with being incoherent and self-contradictory.
Given all the above, what is Obama offering the Palestinians in exchange for halting the drive towards their appointment with the UN in September? What inducement can they have for once again taking up, instead, the route of negotiations – a route discredited by eighteen years of bitter experience since Oslo?
Taking the speech at face value, it can be said to include several conspicuous inducements, the most obvious being that magic number – 1967. "The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states".
"Negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt". (A Palestinian border with Jordan means no permanent Israeli rule in the Jordan Valley, an outspoken Netahyahu demand).
"Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state".
Also the question of timing is addressed in a very coherent way: "There are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now" (Netanyahu is conspicuous among those who so argue). "I disagree. At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever". " The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome". "The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace".
With all of that, Palestinians would still have every reason to feel suspicious of Netanyahu. Even were he to officially accept the 1967 borders as the basis for the negotiations, there is every reason to suspect that once "Resumption of the Peace Process" is publicly proclaimed in a new ceremony and photo opportunity, he would find dozens of ways to wriggle out. For example, accept the principle of "mutually agreed swaps" but in practice lay claim to large tracts of fertile West Bank land, complete with underground water sources, and offer in exchange tiny bits of desert land with not a single drop of water. (That is what Ehud Barak, Netanyahu's Defense Minister, did when he was PM himself in 2000 – a major reason for the disastrous collapse of the Camp David Summit.) Or Netanyahu could make use of Obama's numerous references to Israel's security in order to make demands in practice nullifying the sovereignty of Palestine and amounting to de-facto continued occupation.
Netanyahu could have placed the Palestinians on the horns of a difficult dilemma by agreeing to the principle of the 1967 borders, and agreeing to arrive at the negotiating table on this basis. But he chose not to. He chose the very opposite course – declaring outspokenly his complete and utter rejection of the 1967 "indefensible" borders (actually, on the one occasion when it came to a test, Israel defended itself splendidly from within these borders…). A vehement rejection of 1967, made from Jerusalem immediately upon hearing the speech, and reiterated at the White House while being seated at the President's side, and likely to be reiterated once again on Capitol Hill – in effect asking US Senators and Representatives to choose between their President and the Prime Minister of Israel.
It has been argued that accepting the 1967 lines – however insincerely – might cause Netanyahu serious trouble in his ruling coalition, even a rebellion by nationalist hardliners within his own Likud Party. This is likely true, but it is not necessarily all. To the extent that any politician can be said to be acting out of sincere convictions, Binyamin Netanyahu seems to be acting sincerely now. An adherent of Greater Israel, born and bred, he had been ready to dissemble and make tactical moves and seeming concessions. No more, it seems.
So, what next? Given the events of the past two days, the most likely prediction would be: more of the same. Calls by the United States and the international Quartet for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which would go unheeded, as with Netanyahu's rejection of the 1967 borders there would be no common basis for negotiations – and given his record up to date, Obama would not be able to compel Netanayhu to change his fundamental position. And there would be more intransigent declarations and intransigent actions by the Government of Israel, violent confrontations of all kinds in various times and places (the next relief flotilla to Gaza is due within a month), an increasing international isolation of Israel and an increasing polarization inside Israel. A continued Palestinian drive to build up support in the UN. And finally, the September showdown coming, with no viable alternative offered, and Obama still facing the dilemma he wanted to avoid – to veto or not to veto. And then?
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