My latest New Matilda column is about the Obama administration’s first foray into the Middle East:
On Palestine it’s hard to tell the difference between Obama and Bush. But while the US and Israel block progress, there are small signs of movement, writes Antony Loewenstein
The number of people who believe in the two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine problem continues to shrink.
The evidence is piling up showing just how impossible that strategy has become, including the revelation last week of yet another EU report outlining Israel’s illegal development in East Jerusalem, and Israeli human rights group Peace Now’s recent report that more than 73,300 new housing units are planned for the West Bank. Now even prominent Zionists are arguing for alternatives.
The Australian explained last week that two leading Israeli “centre-left pragmatists” were pushing for Jordan to retake control of the West Bank and for Egypt to reclaim Gaza.
This “solution” has been advocated by hardliners for years — including a leading Likud adviser in early March. Unfortunately it ignores the elephant in the room — namely, the view of the Palestinians themselves. Would they accept it? And why should the Jewish state be allowed to keep hundreds of illegal colonies in the West Bank?
It’s hard to disagree with outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who said in late February: “we need to remember that the complex situation in which we are in [the occupation] promotes anti-Semitism”. It’s a view shared by Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner who wrote that Israel is far from the innocent party in the Middle East and must take responsibility for anti-Israel sentiment across the globe. Such mainstream voices are growing in strength.
As leading British Jewish thinker Antony Lerman argued powerfully last weekend in the London Independent, the problems of the Middle East will remain unresolved until Jews shake off the unjustified persecution complex many still suffer from.
This is the unspoken reality that faced newly appointed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her first visit to the Middle East. Her reception began even before she set out.
“Oslo is dying and so of course is the Palestinian Authority,” said Mustafa Barghouti, an independent politician and head of the popular Palestinian National Initiative. “They are transforming the authority into a security subagent for Israel. It’s becoming a Bantustan government, a Vichy,” he said.
Naturally, as the key mouthpiece for the Washington establishment, the New York Times praised Clinton’s effort. Alas, the real story of her trip is more complex and much less positive. Her main points included reaffirming a Palestinian state (though she was less than enthusiastic about the possibility of a Palestinian unity government that included Hamas) and reaching out to Syria. There is even evidence that Clinton was active in scuppering the necessary moves that would lead to Fatah and Hamas reconciliation.
Ultimately, Clinton’s statements on Palestine were little different to those of her predecessor Condoleezza Rice. She refused to recognise the rule of Hamas and demanded the militant group had to comply with three conditions before the West dealt with it, one of which is recognising Israel. The Israel Policy Forum’s MJ Rosenberg challenged this delusion, arguing:
“Recognition of Israel should not be the precondition for negotiations but rather its prime goal. Establishing it as a precondition is designed to sabotage any possible breakthrough. After all, we know, and they know, that recognition is the only ‘card’ the Palestinians have. Why would anyone expect Hamas to play it in advance?”
In Israel itself, there was a more mixed appreciation of the Clinton visit, with some commentators warning the incoming government that Obama is going to be “bullish” on pressuring Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and the Golan. Business as usual, they are saying, will no longer suffice — but there is little evidence to support this thesis. Words are cheap in the Middle East. Illegal colonies won’t simply disappear because Clinton or Obama express “displeasure” with them.
There are a few signs of progress, however. After visiting the devastated Gaza Strip a number of members of the US Congress loudly pronounced that America had to reassess its relationship with the Jewish state. The Zionist lobby’s vice-like grip on Washington’s agenda remains tight but seems open to new challenges.
There is also a battle going on in the US over the nomination of Charles Freeman for chairman of the US’s National Intelligence Council. It’s a battle launched by neoconservatives expressing unease with anybody daring to criticise the Israeli occupation, and suggests a Zionist lobby worried it may not always gets its way in Obama’s Washington. But some politicians, such as Republican Jon Kyl, continue to act like even uttering sympathy for the Palestinian cause is tantamount to treason.
The recent Gaza reconstruction conference held in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh indicates the Orwellian state of play. The Guardian brilliantly editorialised on the ways in which such events are devoid of pragmatism:
“The money will be given to the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, even though the PA’s writ does not run in Gaza. The aid will pass through crossings currently closed by Israel. It will be distributed in such a manner as to avoid ending up in the hands of its governors. But how? This is like trying to spoon a thin gruel into a dying man, without letting it touch any part of his throat.”
Indeed, much of the pledged money comes from nations that developed some of Gaza’s infrastructure over the last decade and now seemingly want to help rebuild it — until, of course, Israel destroys it all again. This is policy without direction, a band-aid solution to a problem that will not be solved by ignoring Hamas (something at least begrudgingly accepted by Jewish weekly Forward).
Israeli intransigence is now causing mild heart-palpitations within the Jewish state — even leading daily paper Ha’aretz to fear “strengthening…voices calling for abandoning the two-state solution and granting the Palestinians full rights in a bi-national state”, as if such equality was dangerous for a true democracy.
A government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu is something that should worry the civilised world, not least because of his enthusiasm for military strikes against Iran. According to neoconservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, “We have to prepare ourselves for an Israeli attack [on Iran] by the end of this year”. Truthfully, Israel lost the right to be called a victim in the Middle East long ago.
The likely elevation of neo-fascist Avigdor Lieberman to the position of Israeli Foreign Minister should worry supporters of Israel the world over. He will be one of the key figures representing Israel to the world, a man who wants to treat the Arabs like a cancer.
Behind the posturing in all this political theatre, the reality in Gaza is one of ongoing suffering in the wake of Israel’s onslaught. There is growing evidence of systematic IDF abuse of Gazan homes. Meanwhile, a detailed study published in respected medical journal The Lancet concluded last week that disastrous conditions in Gaza and the West Bank over many years have caused an increase in the amount of children whose growth is stunted. This is the largely unreported reality of decades of Israeli occupation policies.
Predictably, Amnesty International’s calls for an arms embargo on the Jewish state due to its “war crimes” in Gaza have been rejected by Jewish hardliners. Sadly, the Obama administration seems likely to ignore the respected human rights group’s advice, too, with the President having voiced support for sending up to US$30 billion in unconditional military aid to Israel in the next 10 years.
But hope exists, albeit on a small scale. Britain announced in early March that it would finally engage in discussions with Hezbollah’s political wing in Lebanon. A few days earlier the British Foreign Office pulled out of talks to move its embassy in Israel to a building owned by Lev Leviev, a man who builds houses in the West Bank.
The best news of all, though, remains a gradual Israeli awareness that the worldwide boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign is beginning to bite.
The Jewish state is starting to play an economic price for its barbarity.