PhOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington November 9, 2015. (Reuters)
Tareq Baconi, Al-Shabaka Policy Analyst, visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, and author of the forthcoming book Hamas: Politics of Resistance, Entrenchment in Gaza from Stanford University Press.
Nadia Hijab, Author, analyst, and Executive Director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.
Samah Sabawi, Al-Shabaka Policy Analyst, author and playwright, and board member of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations.
Q - On Monday, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu met at the White House. According to reports, Netanyahu detailed certain measures intended to defuse the current crisis in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel, including removing some checkpoints and taking steps to improve the Palestinian economy, which is severely affected by Israeli restrictions imposed as part of its occupation regime. Do you think these minor gestures will succeed in calming the situation, even just in the short term?
Tareq Baconi - “Israel is not in the business of resolving this conflict, but rather of managing it. As historian Avi Raz has noted in the context of the 1967 war, Israeli leaders took the 'decision not to decide' on the fate of the Palestinian territories in the direct aftermath of the fighting. Since that time, Israeli policies toward the occupied territories have been aimed at pacification: keeping the Palestinians just sufficiently content so they do not resist the occupation. These policies are aimed at ensuring a sustainable occupation and an indefinite grip on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. When violence ensues (hardly an unexpected outcome when an entire population is kept under harsh military rule), Israel takes measures to calm the situation, and restore a reality where Palestinians continue to be subjugated. This cycle is most crudely manifest in Israel’s policy of ‘mowing the lawn’ in Gaza.
“So will removing checkpoints and pursuing measures to improve the Palestinian economy succeed in the short term? Possibly. If not, other initiatives will spring up. But they are in all certainty part of a much wider failed policy (successful from Israel’s perspective), as they are mere stop-gaps until the next round of violent escalation, often provoked by the Israeli military and its settlers. These cycles can only be stopped when Israel decides to pull out of the territories – or decides to give full human rights to all the Palestinians living under its rule.”
Nadia Hijab - “Such minor gestures might have bought some time even as recently as a year ago, but they are unlikely to do so now. Netanyahu has given the armed settlers free rein to attack Palestinians. Indeed, the many militant settlers among the more than 600,000 now colonizing the West Bank and East Jerusalem are so entrenched in the Israeli army and political system that Netanyahu would be unable to rein them in even if he wanted to – and there is no evidence that he does. On the contrary, there is plenty of chilling evidence that the Palestinians are completely unprotected from Israel’s military and settlers. For example, Israel has not formally charged the killers who this summer burned alive a Palestinian baby and his parents in their home, even though it knows who they are, so as not to expose its intelligence sources; Israel’s shoot to kill policy; and its mandatory three-year sentences for Palestinian youth convicted of throwing stones.”
Samah Sabawi - “Removing some checkpoints and taking some vague steps to improve the Palestinian economy falls far short of addressing Palestinian grievances under Israel’s prolonged military occupation – now in its fifth decade – and affirming the Palestinian people’s basic human rights under international law. Leading human rights groups have documented Israel’s ongoing grave violations of international law over the years, ranging from use of excessive deadly force against Palestinians, targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, arrest and detention and sometimes torture of Palestinian political prisoners, including children, systematic destruction of Palestinian homes and ongoing theft of Palestinian land and resources. Netanyahu’s suggestions to remove some checkpoints and improve the Palestinian economy is empty rhetoric meant for the consumption of the news media in order to create the illusion that Israel is prepared to do something to alleviate Palestinian suffering. Meanwhile, the main item on the Obama-Netanyahu agenda is increasing military aid to Israel, thus increasing Israel’s ability to continue its oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people."
Q - Netanyahu has reportedly requested a $2 billion increase in military aid on top of the more than $3 billion worth of weaponry that US taxpayers already give to Israel each year. This, despite the fact that Netanyahu and senior officials in his government have repeatedly and publicly insulted President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other senior US officials, while continuing to thumb their noses at official US policy, most recently by approving 2,220 new settlement units right before Monday’s meeting at the White House. What message do constant US attempts to appease Netanyahu and his extreme right-wing government, even as they trample prospects for peace and official US policies, send to both Israelis and Palestinians?
TB - “American kowtowing to Prime Minister Netanyahu has severely impacted Israel’s willingness to take the necessary steps toward a peaceful settlement. For Israelis, a culture of impunity has been fostered in recent years. With full conviction of unquestioned American backing, Israel has been able to flout international law on a host of measures without reprisal. It has even been able to do so when its actions have explicitly contradicted official US policies regarding the conflict, for instance expanding settlements which the US deems illegal. With the current American stance, Israel has no incentive in the slightest to change its behavior toward the Palestinians, as carrots have already been extended, and sticks have never been effectively – and will likely never be – used. As for the Palestinians, the charade of American kowtowing to Israel, even under Netanyahu’s leadership, is by now predictable. While the Palestinian leadership has for far too long held hope that the US might eventually begin acting as an honest broker, the current internationalization efforts which are being pursued suggest a shift toward a more realistic reading of the situation, and an attempt to mitigate American bias.”
NH - “Obama’s appeasement of Israeli leaders continues a tradition followed by almost all US presidents of pretending to be an ‘honest broker’ while funding and arming Israel and giving it the political cover of its UN veto. It is disingenuous for the US to claim it has tried and failed when its negotiating position and the majority of its negotiators have been so skewed in Israel’s favor. The US establishment also upholds the myth that there are two sides to this conflict whereas only one side, Israel, is militarily occupying Palestine and preventing Palestinian refugees from returning, in violation of international law. The ‘both sides’ discourse has been one of the most destructive that Palestinians face as they seek to make the case for their most basic human rights.
“But one should be grateful to Obama: He has finally removed the fig leaf cloaking the failed Palestine Liberation Organization and Palestinian Authority policy of relying on the goodwill of the international community to secure Palestinian rights to freedom and justice without building up the Palestinians’ own sources of power and has driven even Mahmoud Abbas and his chief negotiator Saeb Erekat – the most accommodating Palestinian leaders the Israelis and the West could have hoped for – to admit this failure.”
SS - “Obama was clear that his message to the Israeli people was consistent with his and previous US administrations: one of ‘solidarity’ with Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights. Palestinians were hopeful that a fresh approach to Israel/Palestine was possible when Barack Obama began his first term in January 2009. At the time, Israel had just concluded its deadly assault on Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead - a 22-day assault in which Israel killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians. Palestinians were encouraged a few months later when during the first meeting between Obama and the Israeli prime minister, the US demanded that Israel must freeze settlements. At first Netanyahu objected but he later agreed to a 10-month moratorium, which he did not abide by. Indeed, Israel announced during a visit by US Vice President Joseph Biden in March 2010 that it would be building more settlements – much to Biden’s embarrassment.
"In the years that followed, the US administration’s inability or unwillingness to engage constructively with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was made abundantly clear. During that time, Israel launched two more large-scale wars on Gaza, the last in 2014 lasted for 50 days and left more than two thirds of the tiny enclave in ruins with limited prospects for rebuilding to this day due to Israel’s illegal siege and blockade. Israel has continued to increase its illegal settlements at such a rate that now it has rendered the establishment of a Palestinian state impossible. Far from condemning Israel’s violations, the Obama administration has supplied Israel with the firepower it needs and has given it diplomatic cover at the UN. It even vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that declared the West Bank settlements illegal.”
Q - Last week, senior White House officials told journalists that President Obama hopes just to manage the conflict until he leaves office in early 2017. To that end, during their meeting President Obama reportedly urged Netanyahu to refrain from taking further measures harmful to the two-state solution, which Netanyahu does not support despite statements to the contrary made for international consumption, most notably the expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Given that his successor is unlikely to devote significant energy to brokering a peace agreement during his or her first term, and that many observers concluded years ago that the two-state solution was already impossible to realize, do you think we will see a serious reconsideration in the near future of Palestinian national aspirations in terms of shifting away from the two-state model and towards a single democratic state with equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis?
TB - “This reconsideration is already underway within the Palestinian community, both in the occupied territories and in the diaspora. The prospects for a negotiated two-state settlement, at least in the current constellation of regional and international politics, are unlikely. Many would also argue that they are indeed no longer desirable, given the handicapped state which Israel has in mind for Palestinians. Rather than settling for a truncated version of sovereignty, many Palestinians are calling for equal rights from the authority that rules over their daily lives: Israel. While the most vocal proponents of this shift toward rights are in the diaspora, the real transition will come when Palestinians under occupation and within Israel fully transition toward a civil rights movement.
"The current Palestinian leadership is as much of an obstacle to such a transformation as is Israel. The US, as well as other countries and international organizations, will be hard-pressed to stand against a mass movement calling for the abolition of systematic discrimination of an entire people because of their ethnicity and religion. Perhaps with such a pivot, the international community would finally pursue a just settlement for Palestinians. For the Americans specifically, the onus will fall on them to decide between supporting a Jewish theocratic state ruling over Palestinians, or a democratic secular state with security for both peoples. Unfortunately, despite a long and proud history of civil rights struggles, US domestic politics are at present too closely intertwined with Israel’s worst strain of expansionism.”
NH - “By admitting defeat on the peace process has this White House dealt a death blow to the two-state solution and should Palestinians revive their national goals accordingly? To a certain extent it depends on what the European Union decides to do. If the EU is really committed to seeing a meaningful two-state solution on the ground – i.e. one with a sovereign Palestinian state in the territory occupied in 1967 – then that might keep enough Palestinians attached to this goal and give hope that it might come about. But the EU would have to take rapid measures to support a two-state outcome. The EU is finally issuing its guidelines on labeling Israeli settlement products this week but this is a feeble move given what needs to be done to not only stop but reverse Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise and enable a sovereign Palestinian state. The European Council on Foreign Relations recently issued a comprehensive report detailing some of those steps.
“If the EU is unwilling or unable to step up to the plate and no world power is willing to put its weight in a meaningful way behind the two-state solution then Palestinians should abandon this goal and build up their sources of power behind a single democratic state and a civil rights struggle in a way that does not leave the refugees and exiles out in the cold.”
SS - “Many Palestinians have come to the conclusion that a two-state solution is impossible and that a new political outlook is needed to guarantee their rights and aspirations. Palestinians in all of the land Israel controls, on both sides of the Green Line, have faced systematic discrimination and oppression within Israel’s multi-layered system of apartheid: a system that divides Palestinians and Jews into five categories, each with its own different color ID which determines rights and liberties. The Jewish population of Israel is on top of the ID system with full access to all human rights and civil liberties while the Palestinians under Israel’s control inside Israel, in Jerusalem, in the West Bank and in Gaza are divided into sub-categories, targeted by laws that strip them of their basic human rights and dignity. The Palestinian uprising today and Palestinian civil society's call for boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) have united Palestinians under one aim: ending Israel’s system of apartheid and discrimination. Israel must also take responsibility for the millions of Palestinian refugees driven from their homes when Israel was established in 1948 and denied the right to return and to compensation. Only when Jewish Israelis relinquish their privilege for the sake of a peace with justice and equality for all can we foster a new culture of respect for human dignity regardless of religion or ethnicity in our shared homeland.”
Q - Prior to Monday’s meeting at the White House, President Obama condemned Palestinian attacks against Israelis while defending Israel’s right to “defend” itself, even though most of the current violence is actually taking place on Palestinian land that Israeli soldiers have been illegally occupying for nearly half a century. President Obama also made no mention of reports from human rights organizations and others about Israel’s excessive use of force against Palestinians, including summary executions of defenseless Palestinian suspects. How do Palestinians interpret President Obama ignoring Israel’s far greater state violence, which has resulted in the deaths of dozens of unarmed Palestinians over the last month, while condemning Palestinian attacks against Israelis?
TB - “Palestinians are no longer surprised or shocked by these conscious omissions. Unfortunately, there is a long list of horrific and tragically ironic instances in the past few years when Palestinians have been elided from America’s view of events on the ground. While Israel’s right to defend itself is irrevocably upheld, Palestinians enjoy no such privilege. As an occupying power, international law stipulates that Israel has the obligation to protect those civilians under its military rule. In its dealings with the conflict, the US has entirely turned this rationale on its head. This approach to explaining the conflict merely underscores the Palestinian conviction that the US can never be an unbiased mediator.”
NH - “Obama must be relying on the mainstream media for his information which has provided truly lopsided coverage of this latest escalation in the conflict. With his statements, Obama is, wittingly or not, giving the US imprimatur to Israeli settlers to continue their attacks against Palestinians with the dead now standing at a ratio of seven to one since the start of October. If they are not stopped, the settlers will continue to use violence, and their violence has a purpose: To depopulate large parts of the occupied Palestinian territories, especially East Jerusalem and what is known as Area C under the now defunct Oslo Accords. Yet the key to understanding what is going on remains a focus on the core issue: While there are two sides to this conflict, only one is occupying the other and denying their rights to freedom and equality. Working to end the occupation would be a major step on the road to a peaceful and just resolution of this conflict.”
SS - “The lopsided US view of the conflict no longer comes as a surprise to Palestinians. In the rare times that US officials hinted that Israeli actions might be responsible for the rise in violence, they were quickly forced to retract. For example, Secretary of State John Kerry recently got into trouble for hinting that there could be a link between settlement growth and the growing frustration that led to the violence in the West Bank. It is clear that the US administration has become increasingly weak in the face of special interest groups that support Israel right or wrong. So the question should not be how Palestinians should interpret President Obama’s comments, but rather how American citizens should. Support for the Israeli government comes at a great expense to the American people and to American interests in the region. US citizens should be concerned when they hear their President profess that the US and Israel have 'closer military and intelligence cooperation than any two administrations in history.' Such statements are an admission of complicity in a never-ending list of war crimes committed by Israel and documented by countless human rights groups, using the hard-earned money of American tax payers.”
Q - If President Obama or his successor decide to try a new approach to decades of failed American polices in Palestine-Israel, as he has done with Cuba and Iran, what would you advise them to do in order to move Israelis and Palestinians towards a true and lasting peace?
TB - “President Obama is unlikely to adopt a new approach, but is more than able to provide the right opportunity for his successor to do so – even though the current constellation of possible successors offers grim prospects in this regard. The most obvious way forward is for the President to align America’s stance on Israel with the US’ own official declared policies. For instance, affirming that the settlements are illegal has not prevented the US from providing Israel with the financial support that directly and indirectly underpins settlement expansion. The role Israel plays in US domestic politics has prevented either an honest discussion about the way in which the US has been complicit in this occupation, or the measures it has taken, inadvertently or otherwise, to sustain it. If the US is indeed worried about Israel’s security, then the provision of expanded military aid is not the manner in which that goal should be fulfilled. Rather, ensuring an unbiased approach to this conflict, one which allows for the emergence of a more critical stance toward the Israeli rightwards drift and its destructive implications, is the way to go. There can be no true and lasting peace until the Palestinians receive their full rights as stipulated by international law. Regardless of the final political settlement the US hopes to achieve, provisions for these rights are central.”
NH - “President Obama – and his successor – would be well-advised to step aside and let the European Union take the lead. Given the US election cycle and the current power of pro-Israel groups in the US, the unfortunate reality is that both Obama and his successor will likely feel compelled to continue to placate Israel and its US supporters for some time to come. However, the Administration should endeavor to be as neutral as possible so as not to impede European efforts to broker a just resolution of the conflict, if the EU does decide to act. Examples of US neutrality could include: Abstaining on a Security Council resolution condemning settlements, ensuring that Israel does not use US weapons in the occupied territories, and ensuring that US charities do not fund settlement activities. This sounds like a tall order at present but there is a groundswell at the grassroots, including within the Democratic Party, that wants to see a different US policy towards this conflict – one that supports equal rights for all and does not effectively aid and abet an illegal colonial project.”
SS - “The failure of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations is due to their asymmetric nature: Israel has one of the world’s strongest militaries and the Palestinian people live under its occupation and in exile. It is now abundantly clear that a broker which sides with Israel will only ensure the perpetuation of the conflict. The US government’s unconditional material and diplomatic support of Israel has made it a party to this conflict and disqualifies it from any attempt at an ‘honest broker’ role. It is time for the American people to understand the role their successive governments have played in prolonging the conflict by supporting Israel at the expense of the lives of the Palestinians and to the detriment of peace and stability in the region, using their tax dollars. Americans must demand that their government end its unconditional support of Israel and relinquish its control and monopoly over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The question of Israel/Palestine needs to be moved into the international arena, bringing in non-biased objective mediators from the international community who can promote an agreement that is enshrined in international law and brings peace and rights for all.”
For further reference, see our recently released fact sheets, Five Questions President Obama Should Ask Prime Minister Netanyahu, Misperceptions on the Crisis in Palestine-Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu: Putting “an End to the Oslo Accords” & the Two-State Solution, Israeli Government Support for the Extremist Temple Mount Movement and our most recent Expert Q&A: On the Current Crisis in Palestine/Israel.